What is a Truly Universal Spirituality?

Is it possible for humanity, or even a portion of it, to embrace a truly universal spirituality? If so, what would a universal spirituality be based on? And would such a spirituality be able to offer a path to complete spiritual realization? The answers to these questions have become more urgent as the world becomes smaller through technologies of communication and transportation. While we can appreciate the need for greater understanding and acceptance of our differences and greater recognition of our common humanity, should this spell the end of religion as we know it? Is it time for a spirituality that is founded upon universal principles, or upon a scientific spiritual psychology? Can we dispense with forms if we have found the essence? Can we separate spirituality from religion?

Various people have attempted to identify the spiritual values common to the various sacred traditions. Yet even if we could agree on a list of spiritual values, we would have only abstractions. Once we go beyond abstractions, we enter not only the realm of spiritual metaphor, but also cosmology, mythos, human exemplars, ceremony, and practice. We are on relatively safe ground as long as we only espouse generalities; but as soon as we approach the images and stories that could motivate and inspire the human heart, we have entered into the possibility of conflict and disagreement.

Most people who opt for the universal approach to spirituality really have in mind taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It is a particularly modern and Western (and especially American) notion that we can customize our spirituality in a “self-service” way. Historically, the significance of religion has more often been that it united human beings in a common purpose and destiny. In most traditional cultures, which placed so much emphasis on unity and continuity, the modern preoccupation with personalizing a religion or path would have seemed insane.

There is another kind of universality that proceeds from within a particular tradition when someone decides that they do not wish to be bound by forms and beliefs and so attempt a “formless” spirituality. In the few cases of this kind that I have observed, there is always the inescapable necessity of carrying the assumptions and perspective of the original tradition into the formless version. In one Buddhist version of this approach, the point seemed to be to reach a state of perfection through continuous awareness. This universal and formless path was simply Buddhism stripped of its name, rituals, and hierarchy. In a Middle Eastern version of the formless path, the idea was to merge into Love by sharing in the being of a particular person who was supposed to have himself become one with Love. In other words, it was Sufism without ceremony, prayer, or revealed book. More often than not these kinds of attempts at universality result in one-man-traditions which have a tendency to cut themselves off from a wider sense of tradition and community in the name of universality. In the name of transcending forms, beliefs, and identifications, they seem to acquire many of the characteristics of a cult—especially a focus on a single charismatic figure without whom the whole enterprise would dissolve.

Yet another form of universality, and to my mind the most authentic form of it, is the result of committing oneself wholeheartedly to a particular tradition while honoring the good will and truth within other approaches. Eventually, if one goes far enough on one of the real paths to God—and these are usually paths that have been sanctioned by a lineage of enlightened beings—then one arrives at a truly universal perspective because one has used a particular tradition to transcend the egoism that needs identifications and exclusive beliefs. A striking example of this kind of spiritual attainment is Muhyiddin Ibn `Arabi, the great Sufi gnostic who said, “My heart has become receptive of every form. It is a meadow for gazelles, a monastery for monks, an abode for idols, the Ka`ba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, the Qur’an. My religion is love—wherever its camels turn, Love is my belief, my faith.”

Ibn ‘Arabi was not, however, a practitioner of a universal faith, but one who wholly absorbed the way of Islamic Sufism and from whom issued an expression of that tradition which influenced subsequent generations until the present day. It is true that with his depth of apprehension he gave very original and, to some, shocking interpretations of the Qur’an. For him the way of Islam was revealed to be the very matrix of Truth in a unique sense, yet through it he became a universal human being.

Among those who have identified themselves with the teachings of Sufism, there have been in this century, mostly in the Western World, a significant number who have espoused a universalistic Sufism no longer embedded in the religion of Islam, although availing itself of some of the terminology, metaphors, and practices of Islamic Sufism. On the other hand, outside of the West we find the vast majority of Sufis, despite their liberality and tolerance, firmly rooted in Islam. For the contemporary student of Sufism, the relationship between Sufism and Islam offers ample opportunity for confusion, ambiguity, paradox, and argument. In the end it is related to the questions raised in the preceding paragraph—namely the relationship between spirituality and religion.

To what extent is it desirable and possible to distill the spirituality from a religious tradition, receiving what is most pure and essential while leaving behind the dregs of cultural relativity and historical bias? In a sense this is a task that must be done by every generation: restoring the essential message, the living impulse, the spirit of a tradition.

Some would go further, proposing either that we break with the past completely, or that we, in a sense, create a new way based on former traditions. Rajneesh was an example of the former, claiming to represent a new beginning. Various gnostic, Rosicrucian, and even “Sufi” groups fit the second category—offering new rituals, symbols, and practices. Having experienced some of these activities, the question I would ask is: Apart from the subjective apprehension of their aesthetic or intellectual qualities, do these practices have the signs and characteristics of being a gift from the unseen world, or the signs and characteristics of a man-invented ritual, symbol, or practice?

For example, native shamans may perform some strange and even bizarre acts, and yet these may have their own power, if received from the unseen world. We, however, in our desperation for authentic spiritual experience may attempt to design rituals of our own to fill a metaphysical vacuum. While, on the one hand, this can be an innocent and entertaining activity, it may fall short of offering a comprehensive way of life and path to realization.

If we look at the origin of the practices and ceremonies of classical Sufism, we see that virtually all of them have been inspired, not invented. The ablutions and ritual prayer of Islam were taught to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel through visionary experience. At various times in history the Pirs of various Sufi Orders have been instructed through dreams or visions to perform certain rituals in certain ways. A good example of this was the initiation of the Halveti-Jerrahi Order which happened in the following way. Nureddin Jerrahi is said to have received confirmation of having reached a certain spiritual station and the mandate to begin a new branch of the Halveti when the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him in a dream. But this was not the end of it. The following morning various shaikhs began showing up at his door offering different aspects of what was to become the zhikr ceremony and characteristic dress of the Halveti-Jerrahis—all these shaikhs, moreover, had seen the Prophet in a dream and had been told specifically what they should contribute. In this way, the rituals and practices of most Sufi orders have been gifts from the Unseen.

Within the Mevlevi tradition we are fortunate to have, in addition to the classical practices of the Islamic tradition, the whirling ceremony, a form of worship whose origins are hidden in the immemorial Great Spirit tradition of Central Asia, but which took on a unique cosmological/alchemical symbolism in its Mevlevi form, which most likely traces back to Shams of Tabriz and Rumi’s son, Sultan Veled.

Furthermore the treasure contained within the Mathnawi and Divan of Jalluddn Rumi can be considered the most significant body of inspired literature originating from a single human being. While it cannot be considered a “revelation” in the same sense as the Qur’an, it is nevertheless a literature of the highest level of inspiration and aesthetic beauty which fulfills what is revealed in the Qur’an.

Inevitably when Mevl⮢na is introduced to people in the West, most writers feel duty-bound to mention that while he lived and wrote within the framework of Islam, his spirituality was not dogmatic. Of course. Mevlna was another universal human being, and yet it deserves to be mentioned that all his life he was devoted to the prayers, Qur’anic recitation, fasting, and night vigils which were the common practice of all classical Sufis. He also wrote: “I am the slave of the Qur’an and dust under the feet of Muhammad. Anyone who claims otherwise is no friend of mine.”

The issue of the relationship of Sufism to Islam can be better understood if we consider the centrality of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. In brief, Muhammad was an unlettered but intelligent recipient of a Communication that bears all the marks of having come from a very deep or high Source. He was like a tabula rasa, at first the unsuspecting recipient of language so powerful that its effects upon Muhammad were obvious to all when it descended upon him. The voice of the Qur’an is certainly not the voice of Muhammad.

If we take the Qur’an at its own word, it claims to be “a mercy toward mankind,” “a guidance,” “Containing no distortion,” and “providing all that is healthy for the soul.” It claims to be a message from the “Lord of the universes,” who is also the God of all religions. It “confirms what is true of past revelations,” and offers a critique of where those revelations have been distorted.

Its intent is to remind us of the master truth of existence, the reality of an Unseen Beneficence, who is intelligent, aware, and powerful enough to embrace every detail of existence. It is this Love (Rahman), this Truth (Al-Haqq) that we are to place our complete faith in, rather than worshipping secondary causes, or ascribing other gods as equals to the One God. We can find this God “nearer than our own jugular vein,” and yet this God is “beyond anything we can say” about It.

Most spiritual seekers in these times would assert their freedom from religious “dogmas,” preferring, instead, an experiential spirituality. No spiritual practice, however, is entirely free of assumptions, premises, cosmology, metaphysics, and myth. By dogma, however, is probably meant those assertions of opinion based exclusively on some human authority—usually an authority claiming to speak for God himself.

The Qur’an is virtually free of dogma—and by dogma, here, I mean the assertion of belief or opinion without evidence. In the category of dogma I would place those ideas which either:

1. Define or particularize Absolute Reality with concepts, or

2. Ascribe an exclusive agency of salvation to one religion (the notion that God “has a religion and it is. . . ,” as is encountered in most fundamentalisms), or

3. Claim a unique and unverifiable Divine power for a particular individual.

The Qur’an is not unique in its relative freedom from dogma. The words of Jesus in the Gospels are likewise free from dogma and theology—although this has not hindered the formation of dogmas and theologies based upon these words.

All faiths necessarily assert or propose some model of the Divine. These can be as general as: God is Love. Or as particular as: God is an invisible purple armadillo. Whereas the first assertion may be supported with: “And you can verify this for yourself if. . .”, the second assertion is likely to be supported by , “Because we or tradition say so.”

Once one has accepted that there is a Reality that is apparent neither to the senses nor to the intellect alone, but can be apprehended by another knowing faculty within the human being, and that this Reality might be able to communicate with humanity by offering the same message to various messengers, then one can take a critical look at the Qur’an, the circumstances of its revelation, and Muhammad and decide for oneself whether this offers a truthful and helpful description of the human situation. One may find that it even helps to sort out the essential truths from the relative accretions in other traditions. In other words, it may point us to the universal spirituality itself.

The situation of those who have encountered and lived with the message of the Qur’an is somewhat unique, I must admit. On the one hand, one must acknowledge that God’s Compassion, Generosity, Mercy operates through all religions, through all the phenomena of existence in fact; God’s qualities rain down upon the faithful of all faiths and even upon those who deny this Reality.

On the other hand, the Qur’an can be viewed as a clear, undistorted communication from the Divine Intelligence offering the guidance needed to reach our full human potential, social harmony, and God-consciousness. One irony is that one need not even become a Muslim, in the sociological sense, to live in harmony with or value the Qur’an’s guidance and message. Since, for instance, Jesus is viewed as a prophet of God, just as Muhammad is, there can be no essential conflict between the way of Jesus and the way of Muhammad. Any Christian who does not literally subscribe to certain beliefs (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, Original Sin, and the limited, magical understanding of the sacraments), from the point of view of the Qur’an such a “Christian” is in fact a “Muslim.” Jesus’ message of Love, service, morality, social justice, and union with God comes through clearer than ever. Anyone who takes the message of the Qur’an seriously must accept the previous messengers of God—both those we know and those we don’t know.

The universal spirituality revealed in the Qur’an having been glimpsed, what remains to be discussed is the particular grace operating through the specific forms of the Islamic revelation: ritual prayer, fasting, Qur’anic recitation, the human example of the Prophet Muhammad, the names of God, and the Sufi practices that have been revealed over the centuries.

Reprinted with permission of the author from the webpage of The Threshold Society at http://www.sufism.org/  THE THRESHOLD SOCIETY, rooted within the traditions of Sufism and inspired by the life and work of Mevlna Jal⢢luddn Rumi, is a non-profit educational foundation with the purpose of facilitating the experience of Divine unity, love and wisdom in the world.The Society represents the Mevlevi Order in North America.