SPIRITUALITY; Foundations of Islamic Religious Experience

The Foundations of Islamic Religious Experience

In the first of two articles on Islam, the author seeks to convey an idea of Muslim spirituality by means of three images: namely, journey, sign, light. 

As we approach the twenty-first century, few challenges loom larger in the search for justice and world peace than the achievement of mutual understanding among nations, cultures, and religious traditions. For people who profess faith in a sovereign God, few responsibilities are more urgent than that of moving toward a sympathetic appreciation of other faiths. The more our world grows, the more rapidly it seems to shrink, so that we must at the very least learn to cope with the fact of diminishing religious and cultural elbowroom.

One of the increasingly visible features on the international landscape is the religion known as Islam, with its nearly three-quarters of a billion adherents. A major question for Christians with respect to Islam is this: How can we begin to learn about so massive and expansive a phenomenon without resorting to the convenient but unjust stereotypes one hears so often, caricatures that amount to little more than a new form of religious bigotry or racism?

Three more specific questions present themselves. First, what do Muslims have in common with other avowedly religious people across the world? Second, how do Muslims define themselves as a distinct community of faith unique among religions? And third, what possibilities for spiritual growth has Islam offered historically to the individual believer? The image of a spiritual journey will provide a framework within which to respond to these questions.

As citizens of the world, Muslims discern God’s signs in nature, the broad terrain on which they journey. As members of a unique community of faith, they discover God’s signs preeminently in their scripture, the Qur’an, and in their history; this scripture and history map out for them the main road, the “straight way.” As individual believers, Muslims look for God’s signs within themselves, where the signs mark off the path each person must walk before God. In all three instances the signs are illumined by the light of God’s all-encompassing revelation. Believers strive to respond to that revelation by taking one more step across the terrain of creation, down the “straight way” of Islam’s special history, and along the path of personal sanctification and self-knowledge, all in a journey back to the Lord of the universe.(1)

Both the imagery of God’s threefold revelation and that of journey and light are rooted in the Qur’an. “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in their very selves, until it becomes clear to them that it is the Truth” (41:53). And: “On the earth there are signs for those of firm faith, and in your very selves. Will you not then see?” (51:20-21). In addition, the Arabic term that is used for “verse” of scripture (ayah) also means “sign,” thus suggesting that the Qur’an also is one great sign replete with more specific signs. In response to each of the three questions I have posed above, I will introduce further texts of the Qur’an that unite all three elements of the imagery of journey, sign, and light.

If readers are willing to accept the possibility that God has spoken, and continues to speak, to human beings who are not Christians, let them read on. My premise here is that, for reasons known only to the Creator, God has desired to make his word known to a faith community whose members call themselves Muslims. He is not some “other” God who speaks Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and a host of other tongues which Muslims speak all over the globe. For the Arabic word Allah simply means “God,” the very Deity to whom we pray.

Now to the first question: How do Muslims perceive and respond to God’s signs on the horizons?


Behold, in the heavens and the earth are signs for those who believe. And in your creation, and all the wild creatures He has scattered over the earth, are signs for a people of firm faith. And the alternation of night and day, and the sustenance that God sends down from the sky, quickening thereby the earth after her death, and the ordering of the winds—these are signs for a people who understand. (Qur’an 45:3-5)
Divine revelation in nature appears in Islam’s scripture as the “terrain” on which the journey of humanity takes place, the heavens and the earth as alluded to in the word horizons. Human response at this level we may characterize as a universal or cosmic experience expressed in a creation—inspired language and system of symbols that describe the journey of all creation from God and back to God. According to an Islamic tradition, called a “Sacred Saying,” God once said: “I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, so I created the world.” In that world all nonhuman creatures are essentially “muslim” in that they “surrender” to God by their very nature. Human beings must make the choice as to whether they will surrender.

Once they choose to submit and respond gratefully (thus becoming muslims through their response of “islam”, human beings rather naturally express their response in ritual and symbol that are at once common to other religious traditions and also distinctively Islamic. In themselves these practices are not uniquely Islamic, but they bear an Islamic stamp to the extent that they are integral to the faith-response of a community explicitly gathered by God’s revelation as delivered through Muhammad in the Qur’an. This aspect of Islamic religious experience we will take up in the next segment of this discussion. For now, let us look at some of the ritual and symbolic ways in which Muslims express their response to the “signs on the horizons.”(2)

Fasting is a nearly universal religious practice. Each year, during the lunar month of Ramadan (movable in relation to our calendar), Muslims break their regular life-patterns by abstaining from food and drink from dawn to sunset each day, a period that averages fifteen to seventeen hours. The discipline of refraining from creation’s means of sustenance is a reminder of one’s greater need of God, a need that even creation itself cannot fill. It presupposes that one is also refraining from forbidden words and actions and thoughts, such as envy or hatred. Compassion for those who habitually suffer from hunger, greater ability to go against one’s own less noble tendencies, and the removal of obstacles in one’s relationship to the Creator are among the most desired effects of the fast.

Almsgiving likewise is commonly practiced among religious people the world over. Muslims have the conviction that creation is not a permanent possession, but merely given to humankind as a “loan.” That conviction prompts the response of sharing God’s own wealth. Muslims “give God a loan” in return and seek to steward creation by giving freely what they have freely received. The root meaning of the word for almsgiving in Arabic, zakat, is “to purify oneself,” in the sense that one must strive never to lay claim to what belongs only to God. One must not “overflow one’s banks” by imagining he or she is the source or owner of created goods. Almsgiving is therefore meant not to give a person the good feeling of being generous, but to remind the Muslim of who first gave all to him or her.

Before each of the five daily prayers, Muslims perform a ritual ablution. It is another facet of the purification that almsgiving presupposes. The action involves the use of that universal symbol of cleansing—water. But if water is not available, one may use sand or pebbles. The important thing is to make use of some earthy object as a physical reminder of the overall, inner and outer, purification that is itself an integral part of a proper relationship with God and his creation.

Daily ritual prayer with its orientation toward Mecca is another way of expressing a right relationship to the created world. Mecca is a symbolic axis of the world, a spiritual center, the meeting place of heaven and earth from which all creation radiates. Orientation to one of the cardinal points of the compass or to a particular “spiritual center” (such as Jerusalem in Judaism, for example) is evidenced in many major religious traditions. When Muslims pray together on Friday at noon, or whenever they gather in a mosque for congregational prayer, they express their right relationship with each other by lining up in rows as they face Mecca. Finally, the five daily ritual prayers sanctify time as well as space, as a round of concrete reminders that morning, noon, and night are a gift of God.

Pilgrimage to Mecca, ideally to be made once in a lifetime if one possesses good health and sufficient means, is meant to acknowledge the unity and absolute equality of all. It is the symbol par excellence of the journey of God’s people back to the source. Including such rituals as change of garb and cutting of hair, the journey gives physical expression to the need for a change of heart and mind. Pilgrim goals vary from one religion to another, but they are all symbolic of the journey to the center of creation.

According to Qur’an 6:39, “those who reject Our Signs are deaf and dumb and in profound darkness. God allows to go astray whom He will, and He places on the Straight Way whom He will.” One of the Qur’an’s most beautiful images provides both a background and a foreground against which to appreciate the Muslim response to signs on the horizons:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His Light is as a Niche [the symbol of orientation to Mecca on the back wall of every mosque, as well as a symbol of the human heart] in which there is a lamp. The lamp is within a glass which is like a shining star enkindled from a blessed olive tree, neither of East nor West, whose oil would glow almost of itself even if no fire touched it. Light upon Light! And God guides to His Light whom He will. (Qur’an 24:35)


These are the signs [verses] of the clear Scripture. We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an. Perhaps you will understand. (Qur’an 12:1-2)

Muslims believe, as do Christians, that the most significant events in human history are precisely those events that define their history. If the “signs on the horizons” describe the terrain in which God reveals himself, the historical fact of the Qur’an as revealed to Muhammad between 610 and 632 is for Muslims the opening to the main road on which they as a community journey. “Lead us along the Straight Way,” Muslims pray five times daily and on the many other occasions when they recite the opening chapter of the Qur’an. One might describe Muslims’ response to God’s revelation in “an Arabic Qur’an” as a communitarian experience expressed in a confessional (or kerygmatic) language and symbol-system. Their experience is that of being Muslims in a world where most people are not. Terms of membership are definitive; although there is a good deal of latitude in practice, for we are talking about a tradition that crosses many ethnic and cultural boundaries, they call for a deliberate choice either for or against membership.(3)

How do Muslims define themselves as a unique community of faith? What is distinctively Islamic about Islam? Reduced to the most fundamental terms, to be a Muslim is to adhere to God’s revelation in the Qur’an as spoken by the Prophet Muhammad. “We have sent a Messenger into your midst and from among you, to recite [that is, make a Qur’an, a recitation] to you Our Signs . . . and to teach you the Book and Wisdom” (Qur’an 2:151). But if the matter were all that simple, I would probably not have written this article, and surely no one would be reading it. History has a way of making life enormously complicated.

During the course of nearly fourteen centuries, Islam has come to embrace a remarkable variety of cultural and ethnic entities. As the world of Islam expanded, it became more and more evident to Muslims that neither the text of the Qur’an, nor the paradigmatic words and deeds of Muhammad enshrined in the community’s collective memory, corresponded item for item with the new issues that surfaced with changing times and circumstances. Therefore, the two prime sources of Islamic tradition, the scripture and the Prophetic Example (called the Sunnah in Arabic), had to be adapted and reinterpreted continually. Islam’s religious history is the composite story of how those adaptations and reinterpretations have unfolded.

In order to appreciate something of the Islamic experience of unity in diversity, it will be necessary to explore some of the implications of Muslims’ evolving understandings, first, of the Prophet Muhammad and the issue of leadership and authority as it arose after the Prophet’s death; and, second, of the Qur’an and the problems attendant on the need to implement it in daily Islamic life. I shall introduce each of these considerations with an appropriate text from the Qur’an, so as to situate both the Prophet and the Qur’an in the context of our journey, sign, and light imagery. We turn, then, to the role of the Prophet and the question of community leadership.

He [God] is the One Who sends manifest Signs to His servants, that He might lead you from the depths of darkness into the Light .... O you who believe! Be mindful of your duty to trust in His Messenger, and He will bestow on you a double portion of His Mercy: He will provide for you a Light by which you shall walk and He will forgive you .... (Qur’an 57:9 and 28)

It was one thing to trust in God’s messenger while he lived; it was yet another to know whom to trust as Muhammad’s successor. Muhammad’s death thrust the young Muslim community into a protracted debate over the criteria of legitimate succession, a debate that gave rise to a diversity of opinion that would also have serious implications for the practical implementation of Qur’anic legislation, as we shall see shortly.

According to sources compiled as much as two or three centuries after the Prophet’s death in 632, two predominant approaches to the problem of succession emerged. One group held that the Prophet had named his son-in-law Ali to be his caliph (“successor,” “vicar”). The other, convinced that Muhammad had made no such appointment, opted for an elective procedure. Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, emerged as their choice. Ensuing developments are much too involved to detail here. In brief, the group that supported Ali came to be known as the Shi’ah (that is, party) of Ali. Those who backed Abu Bakr formed the nucleus of what is known now as the “People of the Sunnah and the Assembly,” or the Sunni Muslims.

The distinction between Sunni and Shiite is not the only mark of diversity within Islam. Within each of these groups there are significant subdivisions. I will mention the most important variations among Sunnis shortly, in the context of variant interpretations of the Qur’an. Here I would like to give a brief sketch of the two principal Shiite groups.

Major differences between the two largest segments of Shiite Islam crystalized around the second half of the eighth century. Until that time, both agreed that the authority to lead the community was vested in a hereditary succession of six descendants of Muhammad, beginning with Ali. In 765, the sixth Imam, or spiritual leader, died; and a dispute arose over who would be his legitimate heir. One group pledged allegiance to the sixth Imam’s older son, even though he had died before his father did. They effectively terminated the official line of succession with this seventh Imam, and hence are known as “Seveners” (or Isma’ilis, after the seventh Imam, Isma’il). The Seveners are now found, for example, in East Africa, Pakistan, and India, and are headed by the Agha Khan.

A second faction chose to follow the man whom the sixth Imam designated after the death of Isma’il. This faction continued the line of succession down to the disappearance of the twelfth Imam in 873. Hence, they are now known as the “Twelvers.” They constitute the vast majority of the population of Iran and about half that of Iraq. Shi’ism has been Iran’s state religion since the sixteenth century.

For both the Seveners and the Twelvers, religious experience has been decidedly millenialist. A strong messianic hope awaits the return of the last Imam (either the seventh or the twelfth), who will inaugurate a new age in which all believers will benefit from the Imam’s redemptive suffering and that of the whole family of the Prophet. However, to say that Shiite spirituality is very much involved with the concept of redemptive suffering is not to say that Shiites are motivated by some sort of “martyr complex,” as the news media have often alleged in recent years. “Martyr complex” simply does not do justice to the willingness people have shown, in many ages and in many religious traditions, to die for what they believe in.

What I have said thus far is but a superficial glance at some immensely intricate historical developments; but we must move on to consider the Qur’an.

It is not fitting that God should speak to a human being except by inspiration [a technical term used for the revelation given to a prophet], or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a Messenger to reveal, by God’s leave, what God wills .... And thus We have, by Our command, sent an inspiration to you [Muhammad]. You knew not what the Scripture was, nor what the Faith was. But We have made it [the Qur’an] a Light by which We guide such servants of Ours as We will. And truly you [Muhammad] guide them to the Straight Way, the Way of God, to Whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth .... (Qur’an 52:51-53)

The light of the Qur’an’s guidance is the primary touchstone against which Muslims must judge the authenticity of their faith and action. Some texts of the scripture provide explicit regulations regarding matters of personal and social morality as well as ritual. But the Qur’an is not primarily a legislative handbook. Very early in Islamic history, local communities faced issues on which the book gave no specific ruling. The most pressing problem for the community was then, as now, how to interpret the sacred text in such a way as to preserve its spirit and still respond to new needs.

From about the late seventh century, the community as a whole began elaborating various interpretative principles and procedures. Schools of thought, each with its own peculiar emphasis on one or another aspect of legal reasoning, began to take shape. All agreed that the Qur’an and the Prophetic Example (Sunnah) were fundamental; but the schools differed in the relative stress they placed on community or scholarly consensus, private opinion, and analogical reasoning. By the end of the ninth century several distinct and formally constituted legal methodologies had come into being. Today, Sunni Muslims consider the four extant schools—the Malikite, Hanifite, Hanbalite, and Shafi’ite—equally acceptable and “orthodox.” More than one school may be found in a given Islamic country, but one generally predominates; for example, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia are dominated, respectively, by the schools listed above. In cases for which no explicit solution can be found either in the Qur’an or in the Sayings of Muhammad (Hadith), the Sunni schools usually leave the final decision to scholarly or community consensus, rather than to the judgment of an individual legal authority. Shi’ites, who do not recognize the Sunni schools of law, vest overriding legal competence in some individual whom they consider to be divinely sanctioned by reason of a spiritual-genealogical link to Muhammad, via the descendants of Ali.

The point I want to make is that Islam is not now, and never has been, the monolithic religion many outsiders have thought it to be. For although the historic revelation of the “straight way” demands an exclusive commitment to a single and unique community of faith, the meaning of that original call has for many centuries been variously interpreted. Hence, it is neither fair nor accurate to equate Khomeini’s approach to Islam with that of Sadat, or that of Qaddafi with that of Pakistani President Ziya al-Haqq or Wallace D. Muhammad, a leading figure in the World Community of Islam in the West.

All things considered, we may say that the Islamic religious experience of God’s signs in the historic scripture, revealed through the historic personage Muhammad, has been mediated through the community’s ongoing experience of reinterpretation as required to keep the spirit of both the primordial revelation and the paradigmatic leader alive and growing.


On the terrain of creation, God lays open the main road of the Muslim community’s unique and exclusive history. Believers discover and set out on that road in the company of others. But Islamic tradition has not denied the individual person either the right and exhilaration or the requirement and risk of exploring and journeying alone before God. Community supports the individual’s desire to acknowledge God’s signs, for God has created an affection between the hearts of believers such as all the riches on earth could never effect (Qur’an 8:63); but the choice must be made and renewed in the solitary heart.(4)

The individual experiences the light of faith, which God casts into the core of his or her being, as a personalized gift, often articulated in mystical language and symbol-system. The expression is “mystical” in the sense that it describes, in Hodgson’s definition of mysticism, an “inward personal experience, more or less transitory as an event but enduring in relevance, which is felt to express or lead to a special authoritative and normative relation between individual and cosmos.”(5) The term includes much more than ecstatic experience, but it does not rule out experiences that are usually associated with the “great mystics” of any religious tradition.

An important and sometimes controversial element in Islamic tradition has been the Sufi Path. Although Sufism has witnessed the development of a great variety of formally constituted religious orders, the Sufi Path is not itself an institution. It is the personal counterpart to the main road of the revealed law (called the Shariah) which circumscribes the Islamic community as a whole. Both in the more technical handbooks on Sufi doctrine and practice and in the intensely personal poetry of some of Islam’s “great mystics,” the individual appears as a wayfarer on a course designed uniquely for him or her. It is the journey of a love relationship between servant and Master, creature and Creator. Authors of Sufi manuals elaborated a number of psychospiritual typologies to describe the various “stations” and “stages” along the path. But they all agree that intimate knowledge of God is the crucial ingredient in the experience. (I must point out here that I know of no clear connection between classical forms of Islamic Sufism and the “Sufi Numbers” or “Enneagrams” that have gained some popularity in recent years.)

Guidance along the path comes ultimately from God, as does the community’s guidance along the main road. Sometimes, however, the wayfarer needs counsel tailored to individual temperament and gifts. The theory and practice of spiritual direction in Islam are highly developed. That topic would require its own treatment elsewhere; but it is definitely a matter we Christians, and especially Catholic religious, could very profitably explore. Muslims not formally affiliated with religious orders, as well as members of orders, have sought and received spiritual direction from a shaykh (spiritual guide) either in person or by letter. Some of the material needed for a thorough study of the subject is beginning to be made available, and there is much more still to be edited and translated.

Sufism’s emphasis on individual religious experience, on the ability to recognize and interpret the “signs within the self,” has had considerable influence on the broader range of Islamic popular piety. Whether for good or ill, the growing popularity and esteem of certain early Sufi shaykhs soon transformed some of them into saints in the eyes of the people. A cult of the saints grew up, often encouraging pilgrimages to a holy person’s tomb in the hope of receiving boons and miracles of all kinds. Sunni Islam has never officially sanctioned the cult of the saints the way Shi’ite Islam has recognized popular reverence at the tombs of the Imams, but both devotional practices appear very much a part of popular piety and are probably here to stay for a long time.

What I have proposed here is a synthetic model. Nowhere do the primary Islamic sources analyze Islamic religious experience precisely this way. This model is therefore a reconstruction; but the materials—the language and imagery of journey, sign, and light—are Islamic in inspiration. So long as one is aware of the limitations inherent in such models, they can be drafted appropriately into service as vehicles for cross-cultural understanding. Even so, the reader may as yet see no realistic way of setting out on the journey described in these pages. It may seem impossibly compromising, perhaps bordering on an outright betrayal of one’s allegiance to Christianity. In the sequel to this article I will offer some reflections as to how twentieth-century Christians can go forth on this journey, knowing that, although it is not without its terrors, it will also have rewards as yet untold.


1.  In his The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), Marshall G. S. Hodgson has suggested a three-part model for understanding Islamic religious experience. He describes three “components in devotional religious experience and behavior.” Here I have amplified his scheme, associating the components with foundational texts from the Qu’ran and integrating the components with the Qu’ran’s imagery of journey, sign, and light. As Hodgson says of the three components, they “are not mutually exclusive—indeed, they presuppose each other—but they mark different moments of spiritual experience. Each of these components [corresponding to the three questions I have posed] may be determinative in a devotional tradition, or even in an individual devotional life, and the other two subordinate to it; and to the extent that it is so, that component determines the overall mode of the devotional experience and behavior” (vol. 1, p. 363).

2.  What follows corresponds to Hodgson’s “paradigm-tracing” component, in which “ultimacy is sought in enduring cosmic patterns, in recurrent nature (including social nature)” (vol. 1, p. 363). At this level, Islamic religious experience may be said to include features common to all “religious experience,” such as a sense of sacred space and time, the use of rites of purification, natural symbols, myth, and so forth. A phenomenological approach to the study of religion might be inclined to describe Islam entirely in such terms.

3.  Hodgson’s “kerygmatic” component, in which “ultimacy is sought in irrevocable datable events, in history with its positive moral commitments” (vol. 1, p. 363). Whereas the first component relates to the level at which a member of any religious tradition can recognize experiences shared with virtually every other religious person on earth, the second refers to the experience of belonging to a specific confessional community. In this instance the community is that of Islam with its historical beginnings in the Qu’ran and the forging of a body of believers who pledged their exclusive allegiance to one another. This is a component perhaps more important in the prophetic monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) than in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, though adherents to the latter also experience themselves as members of a more or less clearly defined community of faith.

4.  This relates to Hodgson’s “mystical” component, in which “ultimacy is sought in subjective inward awarenesses, in maturing selfhood” (vol. 1, p. 364). Non-Muslims often assume that Islam is a mass-religion in which the individual founders in a sea of predetermination. That assumption is based on a caricature of Islam, a view that regards the “God of Islam” as a despot whose autocratic whims and arbitrary exercise of omnipotence make smoking stubble of human choice and responsibility. God does not despise the individual; for it is the individual Muslim who must make the choice of belief or infidelity and, in the end, account for that choice. Muslim writers in moden times have been increasingly attentive to the issues of human freedom and moral responsibility.

5.  Ibid., vol. 1, p. 396.

Originally published in SPIRITUALITY TODAY, Summer 1982, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 100-112. 

John Renard received his Ph.D. in Islamic studies in 1978 from Harvard University. Since then he has been teaching at St. Louis University in the Department of Theological Studies and part-time in the Department of Art and Art History.