Review: Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel

Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie SchimmelAmong all the popular books being presented now that deal with Islam relating to current events there is nothing still that can compare with this book, published in 1975 dealing with Islam as a path to the divine – known as tasawwuf or, more popularly, Sufism.

These days we are constantly bombarded by pundits, experts and scholars from all sides as to the relationship of Islam and Democracy – the relationship of Islam and terrorism – the “woldwide jihad” – gender equality – and a host of other topics that deal with Islam as a social or political movement. Actually, in many ways this is not surprising. As with all religions, there is a significant portion of participants who do so at a very limited level.

For those people, both Muslim and gentile, this sort of treatment of Islam, or any religion, is both adequate and appropriate. The reduction of the religion to a series of dry, mundane topics is a covering, a protection, a veil if you will, over that which is more rich, profound, mystical and life changing than any other force. The real power, majesty and inner life of Islam’s mystical dimension is connected with the relationship between us and our maker. Indeed between us and the ultimate reality of the universe. This is the real impact of Sufism, the real way that through individual enlightenment comes a greater force for good in this world. The real way that society changes for the better, through each individual’s personal connection with the divine.

Schimmel has some very scholarly credentials. She was (she passed away in 2003) one of the most highly regarded linguists of her time. She was fluent in most Islamic languages and was very widely read. There can be no doubt as to her academic standing nor of her expertise in the subject and it shows in the depth and breadth of the way she delves into this topic. This gift of her knowledge of the mystical anthropology, leads us on a journey that culminates in the depth of the Muslim’s veneration of the prophet and the saints. She delves deeply into the questions of free will and predestination, of good and evil. Mainly steeped in Sufism as reflected in Islamic poetry, Professor Schimmel examines the various aspects of mystical poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Sindhi, Panjabi, and Pashto. Skillfully demonstrating how Sufi ideals permeated the whole fabric of Muslim life, providing the average Muslim—villager or intellectual—with the virtues of perfect trust in God and the loving surrender to God’s will.

What Schimmel does is present a highly readable and fascinating account of those aspects of Islam that go into the deeper meanings of the faith and the individual’s relationship with the almighty. Depending mostly on original source material Schimmel brings alive the voices and personalities of teachers throughout the 1400 or so years of Islamic mysticism.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are interested in learning the history of tasawwuf and in gaining knowledge on where to find the real “juice” of the deen – the real intention of the divine in prescribing and perfecting for us this Islam.

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