Posts Tagged ‘Émile Durkheim’

Islam and the Idea Mystical:The Distinction Between Sacred and Profane

Islam and the Idea Mystical:

The Distinction Between Sacred and Profane

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

The distinction made between scared/holy and mundane/profane does not apply neatly to every religious tradition. Although many religions, through the mode of theology, belief, and ritual practice, and many scholars make this distinction, it will be argued here that in Islam, especially its “mystical” aspect and other aspects found in the mysticism of other religious traditions, this distinction is not to be found. This view is often the result of anthropological and sociological typologies and studies of religion that attempt to make universal claims about religion by focusing primarily on the Western, often secular, view of religions found in academia. Islam is usually erroneously lumped together, eucemenically, with the Westernized, biblical religious traditions, often because it is considered an Abrahamic faith, rather than how Muslims see it, as the Abrahamic faith. We must remember here that both Christianity and Judaism are Middle Eastern faiths, so we wonder with those of knowledge how these religions are considered Western religions(?)

I will briefly survey this topic by first approaching it through the concept of the dimensions of religion. Then I will narrow the argument by discussing specific aspects of the Muslim tradition and its specific religious dimensions, namely prayer, Muslim architecture and the idea of sacred space. Then I will relate this to “mysticism” and the concept of an obliteration of the line between sacred and profane by looking at the mystical strains in other religious traditions to show how they also do not make a clear distinction between sacred and profane.

Language usage in the study of Islam in most likely the primary factor in perpetuating what Islam is and what Muslims actually believe and practice. The same holds true for other religious traditions. This becomes even more relevant when we talk about a religious anthropology, an attempt to study religions academically and objectively. There are many ways of defining religion; most of them leave one more confused than enlightened. Defining religion anthropologically, for the purposes of this essay, generally it can be said that religion is a complete way of life and as George Bernard Shaw once remarked “ there is only one religion, though there are hundreds of versions of it”( Anatomy of the Scared, 4). This line annihilates the concept of a distinction between sacred and profane and shows that all ways of human life are variation on one type; concern with the numinous. This is properly called the religious experience. This is also similar to the Islamic perspective. From there it can be narrowed down to a more specific definition. However, because the modern attempt to define religion has its roots in the western (secular) and Christian worldview the difficulties become compounded.

Dimensions of Religion

The Western view of religion sees three basic characteristics constituting a religion: the existence of sacred scriptures, mutually exclusive beliefs and practices associated with the religion, and finally religion is seen as a separate sphere of life. This forms the framework for discussing the dimensions of religion. We will relate this typology to Islam. However as a word of caution, we should remember the flaw in Western academic studies of religion in general and Islam particular: the result of focusing primarily on studying religion through practices leaves open four fallacies: the idea that all religions are primarily focused on beliefs, that religious beliefs fully explain cultural practices, that belief is equivalent to total identity, and that determination of belief is more important than the determination of the object(s) of belief.

According to Ninian Smart, the author of “The Religious Experience” there are several dimensions of religion. These include the ritual, mythological, doctrinal, ethical, social, and experiential dimensions. I will utilize discussion of these dimensions in order to argue that the distinction made between holy and profane made by many scholars cannot be found in many religious traditions, and a universalized study of a religion has to avoid making these kinds of bold, generalized claims about religion.  Anthropology has been struggling with trying to avoid essentialization, yet it is still prevalent in the study of religion.

Many scholars have already argued that ritual or the ritual dimension of religion is the key aspect, along with myth, to understanding religion. Beginning with scholars such as Nathan Soderblom to Rudolf Otto, Emile Durkheim, all the way to Mircae Eliade, this idea, along with the distinction we are discussing, has become pervasive in academic studies of religion. Émile Durkheim considered the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane to be the central characteristic of religion: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.”( Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,  47). In Durkheim’s theory, the sacred represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, or totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil. The sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well( Pals, Daniel (1996) Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. US ISBN 0-19-508725-9). Durkheim’s claim of the universality of this dichotomy for all religions/cults has been criticized by scholars like British anthropologist Jack Goody. (“The sacred-profane distinction is not universal”. Retrieved on 2007-07-10. quote: “neither do the Lo Dagaa [group in Gonja, editor note] appear to have any concepts at all equivalent to the vaguer and not unrelated dichotomy between the sacred and the profane” ).Goody also noted that “many societies have no words that translate as sacred or profane and that ultimately, just like the distinction between natural and supernatural, it was very much a product of European religious thought rather than a universally applicable criterion.”

This external manifestation (ritual) is a mirror of an internal intention and motivation though (The Religious Experience 3). Ritual refers to worship(‘ibadah) and other ritual acts. It can then be argued that if the internal, the invisible world, causes human beings to act religiously, to express themselves through rituals, then these acts themselves are to be considered sacred. In theory, the very performance of a ritual is designed to obliterate the illusion of the separateness of the holy and profane, even if temporarily. In Islam, constant remembrance of Allah(dhikr) is considered a virtuous act of paramount significance. Bearing this in mind we should seek to understand that maintaining the separation between Allah and His creation does not make a separation of sacred and profane clear by default. Yes Allah ‘azza wa jal is the Most Holy, yet the pervasiveness of such Islamic ideas as the sacredness of all life and the virtue of sacralizing all actions makes it also clear that the terms “holy” and “sacred” are being conflated.

Indeed, in every mystical tradition that I will mention, the goal of the religious life is the realization, by various means, of the unity of all Being. Taking this further, in orthodox normative Islam, religion is seen as a comprehensive system covering all aspects of life and thought; everything is considered sacred in theory. So even with Mainstream Islam’s rejection of the seemingly pantheistic idea of Unity of Being (wahadat al wujud), there is a tendency to obliterate the line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane. However in order that we avoid neat, universal claims ourselves it must be said that Allah (the God) is seen as the most Holy One, totally distinct from creation in a somewhat mysterious way as the Uncreated Creator.

Muslim tradition and its Specific Religious Dimensions

The mythological aspect in Islam is primarily associated with stories about Allah, usually found in texts considered “sacred”, in the sense of special and set apart, yet still definitely applicable to “profane life”. It also deals with stories about founders, prophets, holy, men, saints, spirits, demons, etc. Many Muslims are loathe to use the word myth for any Islamic stories because of the modern associations of myth with falsehood. However in an academic study of religion that word has a more neutral connotation. I will use it in that sense to state that Islamic stories and texts, including those found in the Qur’an seek to obliterate any concept of a neat separation of sacred and profane. Mythology in this sense does not mean falsehood then, but a system that explains inimical, spiritual truths through the universal power of symbolism and metaphors.

In the closely related doctrinal dimension of religion, we can see how a theology “develops” from mythology ripe for this kind of theological and doctrinal development. The symbols and mythology of Islam are systematized into a doctrinal framework, so it is generally difficult to neatly differentiate between mythology and theology. It is in this dimension where the distinction between sacred and profane is blurred. Islam is no different,  the maxim found in the Qur’an to “enjoin the good, and forbid the evil”  an admonition and command for each individual Muslim to live a holy life.

In the ethical dimension the ritual, mythological, and doctrinal dimensions of religion are brought together in a code of behavior. All of these acts culminate in the social and experiential dimensions. Although many erroneously believe that Islam is a religion of Law, ie a legalistic, ritualized faith, there is a strong personal aspect to Islam, especially found among the Sufis. In fact, the inherent communalism found in Islam and many religious traditions that have not alienated themselves from their mystical strains creates a social atmosphere of solidarity founded on a commonality of personal experience of God and religion,. This is the experiential dimension of religion.

Muslim Prayer and the Sacred and Profane

As stated before , for the Muslim, Islam is a complete way of life. The Muslim prayers, called salat are a way of making “contact” with the Divine. In fact the word salat does not neatly translate as prayer but as “making contact”, among other definitions, including what non-Muslims understand as “worship”. In many Western religious circles prayer is seen primarily as propitiation and supplication, so salah is more appropriately understood as worship(‘ibadah) rather than prayer in the Western sense. This where the distinction between sacred and holy and profane and mundane is ritually obliterated five times a day. Many Muslims pray additional prayers, called sunnah and nawafil, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad(saws) and his Sunnah, or way, as expounded in extra Quranic, yet canonical, books called Hadith. All of the ritual practices and duties that make one a Muslim, including salat and alms-giving(zakat), and fasting(sawm), and pilgrimage(hajj) and even jihad are considered to be necessary, integral aspects of the Muslim life. And many Sufis, those following a mystical tradition within Islam, not the innumerable Sufic groups, take these ritual obligations even further.

Prayer has many different aspects in Islam. As mentioned above the concept of prayer, has multiple meanings for Muslims. It is not primarily supplication and propitiation, but worship and many other religious activities. The word prayer actually denotes and encompasses many activities to a Muslim. These include salat( contact with the Divine), du’a( supplication), dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and Quranic recitation both aloud and internally; and primarily for the Sufi, munajjat (devotional conversation) and fikr or muraqaba( meditation) , These practices guide and motivate a Muslim to lead a holy life internally through their thoughts and externally through every action. During Ramadan, the “holiest month” of fasting, the Muslim life become intensified and one can observe the ordinary Muslim becoming like a Sufi in some sense, but more accurately as a true, devout Muslim. A Muslim lives “in the name of Allah”, and dies “for the sake of Allah” and strives to approach Allah .

Note: I make a distinction between tassawuf and tazkiyya on one side and the various Sufic groups that comprise Sufism; one is legitimately a mode of religiosity and in a sense a school of thought in Islam. The other is clear deviation from the Path.

We extend this extended discussion of the ritual dimension to an additional discussion of the ethical dimension. This dimension is where we also see a blurring of the distinction of the sacred and the profane. Virtues like honesty and enjoining the good and forbidding the evil are examples. How Muslims are to interact with each other in the social dimension and with other Muslims also is an example of turning every action into something sacred. Islam teaches that intentions are central to all actions. Extending from this is the idea that if the intention behind mundane, permissible actions is seeking the pleasure of Allah, then this act becomes transformed into an act of worship.

The Prophet (r) stated the following: “Anything you spend seeking Allaah’s Countenance will be rewarded, even for [the bit of food] that you put in your wife’s mouth.”

Ibn al-Qayyim wrote in his classic, Madaarij as-Saalikeen, “The most exclusive [group of] people who become close to Allaah are those who change the nature of their permissible acts into deeds of obedience to Allaah.” He also wrote “The customary deeds of those people who truly know Allaah are acts of worship [for them] while the ritual acts of worship are customary deeds for the masses.”

Muslim Architecture and The Idea of Sacred Space

In the book  “Making Muslim Space”  the idea of a “sacred space” as specifically applied to a place of prayer such as a mosque(masjid) is denied. Nothing about a building by itself  makes it more particularly “Islamic” as many different styles can and have been incorporated in Islamic architecture. And the line between sacred and holy and profane is obliterated when we read about Muslims who state that the mosque is neither especially holy nor profane, and a Muslim can pray anywhere on Earth she/he so chooses. Indeed Prophet Muhammad(saws) said in an authentic narration that the whole world is a masjid except the toilets and the graveyards. In short everything a Muslim does is towards the realization that there is no permanent, real distinction between sacred and profane’ as the Sufi goal in to unite with Allah, to return to Allah in this life and as the ordinary Muslim has as his goal a holy life that makes everything sacred and hopes for the inevitable return to Allah in the Hereafter.

Mystical Strains in Other Religious Traditions

We turn now to a brief discussion of mysticism in other religious traditions to show how they are similar to Islam’s ideas about the Sacred. This is not to say that Islam’s view is validated by this similarity with other religious traditions, or that this similarity is a one to one correlation. This is merely a brief comparative exposition to show that a universalized typology that claims that all religions have a central idea of separation of the sacred and profane is unrealistic, to put it mildly. In an effort to academically avoid making judgments about the truth claims of the various religions, many social scientists have missed the mark with this type of idea that has a heavy reliance on the thought of  Western anthropological scholars such as Emile Durkheim and Mircae Eliade.

In Hinduism:

The reality of God is taken for granted. I am not just thinking of the images of divine beings that are omnipresent, but the philosophic acceptance of spiritual knowledge. Horst Georg Pöhlmann, writing of his first visit to India in 1989, says:

“Religion is practiced as a matter of course; people pay brief visits to the temple between their shopping. . . Everyone in the street can see through the open temple door the sacred fire which burns in the dark sanctuary of the temple before the image of God. . . There is no distinction between the sacred and the profane, between religion and every day, as with us. Here God really is a God of the everyday. Religion is something natural. . . It is an innermost need. . . There is no secularization. Everyone is religious. Among the Hindus every house, every shop, every rickshaw has the picture of a deity.” Suddenly to be immersed in Indian religious thinking, which assumes the existence of a Divine Reality and that union with the Divine (moksa) is the goal of the spiritual quest, was liberating and refreshing. There are in classical Hinduism three recognized paths (sadhanas) to God: the way of disinterested service of others, the way of devotion and the way of knowledge (karma-yoga, bhakti-yoga and juana-yoga). The word yoga, which is cognate with the English word ‘yoke’, means union with God and the way to that union. The third path, jnana, means spiritual insight rather than intellectual knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge: one is the result of the study of the scriptures, but the other is realization or experience of union with the Divine. Intellectual knowledge is not enough. In the Chandogya Upanishad, the student Narada complains, ‘I have studied all the Vedas, grammar, the sciences and the fine arts, but I have not known the self and so I am in sorrow.’ Another conceited young student, Svetaketu, is asked by his father, ‘As you consider yourself so well-read . . . have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?’

Spiritual intuition — the experience of the Divine — is accepted in Hindu philosophy as a valid source of knowledge. This confirmed my feelings that the presuppositions of linguistic philosophy were too limited. Indeed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who exposed the limitations of our use of language, himself said, that there was a mystery beyond language. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent.’”

For me this Hindu emphasis on experience of the Divine reinforced my own basic conviction. If I tried to summarize my deepest spiritual aspiration, I would use the words of St Paul, ‘It is no longer I that live, but Christ Jesus lives in me’ (Galatians 2, 20), or I would echo the yearning from the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer that ‘I might evermore dwell in Christ and he in me’. My faith was rooted in spiritual or mystical experience. Learning about Hindu philosophy and Western Idealist philosophers, such as Royce and Bosanquet, to whom my Indian Professor Dr. C. T. K. Chari introduced me, gave me an intellectual basis for a theology rooted in religious experience.

Let me clarify what I mean by religious experience by quoting from William James’ land-mark book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, which was first published in 1902. He puts clearly what I had myself sensed and for which I was discovering an intellectual basis in those first months of being immersed in Hindu philosophy.

‘The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime and creed. In Hinduism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, . . . we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates language, and they do not grow old.’

The mystic experience is a sense of oneness with All Being –whether that is described as God, or the Real. The experience cannot be adequately expressed in words. Although in Hinduism, many facets of the One Divine Being are pictured as gods, Hindu teachers have always made clear that there is only one Spiritual Reality. Brahman is the One Reality which is the Ground and Principle of all beings. Brahman is described as Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat., Cit. Ananda). Brahman cannot be described. ‘Neti, Neti, Not this, not that’. Hinduism can remind us of the holiness and wonder of a God who is beyond our imagining. It recalls the so-called ‘apophatic’ tradition in Christian thinking that God, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, is greater than any picture we have of the Divine. God is best spoken of in negative terms, as in the hymn ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.’

Furthermore by looking at more information on Hinduism, specifically Vedanta, from a website we see a quote from Brian Hodgkinson relating the mystical strands in these religions with Islam and Christianity:

This Self is nearer than all else, dearer than son, dearer thanWealth, dearer than anything. If a man call anything dearer than
Self, say that he will lose what is dear, of certainty he will lose
it; for Self is God. Therefore one should worship Self as Love. Who
worships Self his love shall never perish … This Self is the Lord of
all beings; as spokes are knit together in the hub, all things, all
gods, all men, all lives, are bodies, are knit together in that
Self.” (pp. 121, 135 Brian Hodgkinson, “The Essence of Vedanta”)
All the Holy Scriptures – Torah, Bible, Qur’an, Upanishads, Vedas,
Puranas, Granth Sahib – uphold the Self as Spirit, the essence and
presence of the Divine in humans. That is why Jesus answered them
in the temple, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?”.
Self-realization is a slow process of confirming the same divinity
i.e., realizing the Divine within humans. No external images,
rituals or human contacts whatsoever are needed for this inner
journey to realize and meditate in the Kingdom of God within.

Note: Although Islam does in fact affirm that the “self” is spirit or ruh, as per the Qur’an, it is not Orthodox Islamic belief that Allah, used synonymously here with the term the Divine, is  present in His creation, as the above quote suggests. The spirit is a creation and not the Uncreated which Allah is. In some Sufic circles as well as in other non-Sufi circles it very popular to think of Allah in this way, however the Qur’an and Sunnah do not support this theological view, which is essentially pantheistic. The quote was utilized by way of illustration. Even without this heretical idea about Allah, it still can be understood that the Divinely mandated/revealed ideal lifestyle of the Muslim, in the Muslim view, his Deen, obliterates the distinction between the sacred and profane without having to speciously claim that Allah and His creation are mystically One, or that Allah dwells in the human being therefore blurring the distinction between the Creator and creation.

In Buddhism:

Teachers disapprove of cultivating dualism, even between the sacred and the profane. A disciple is first asked to cultivate “a good mind”. In the intermediate stage, the disciple is asked to “break through the good mind” (i.e., stop distinguishing between the. sacred and the profane). In the final stage of learning, the monk lets go of all conceptualizations of good and bad or sacred and profane. This is called the final good.

In Christianity:

Galatians, from the New Testament of the  Bible sums it up neatly in this way:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

With “Christ” being understood to stand for the Divine, God, the Sacred and the Holy.


In short we see the distinction made between sacred/holy and mundane/profane made by many anthropologists and other scholars does not apply neatly to every religious tradition. In Islam, especially its mystical aspect and other aspects found in the mysticism of other religious traditions, this distinction is not to be found. This is the result of anthropological and sociological typologies and studies of religion that attempt to make universal claims about religion by focusing primarily on the Western, often secular view of religions found in academia. Islam is usually lumped together with the Western, biblical religious traditions, often because it is considered an Abrahamic faith. However in order that we avoid neat, universal claims ourselves it must be said again that Allah (the God) is seen as the most Holy One, distinct from creation in a somewhat mysterious way as the Uncreated Creator.

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity’s Mystical religious traditions as well as in Sufism, this distinction is also either obliterated or denied. In Orthodox Islam, which includes tassawuf, this distinction is obliterated without resorting to a claim that Allah as the Deity is identical to His creation in a mystical way. Everything is sacred or holy because everything is created by or is emanated from the sacred. Therefore one must live their lives as such.The same can be said about ideas of the distinction between the sacred and holy in other religious traditions. In many ways this idea really reflects the secular humanist idea of a separation of sacred and holy, church and state, that is then superimposed onto religions. This is not the only time or way that secular ideas about religion have been reflected in academic study of religion.

To Allah we belong and to Him is our return [Qur’an 2:156]