Mysticism in Islam
In his autobiography, the Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazzali (1058–1101) talks about the experiences the Sufis, who are Muslim mystics. He writes:
The Science of the Sufis aims at detaching the heart from all that is not God, and at giving to it the sole occupation the meditation of the divine being. Theory being more easy for me than practice, I read until I understood all that could be learned by study and hearsay. Then I recognized what pertains most exclusively to their method is just what no study can grasp, but only transport, ecstasy and the transformation of the soul.
Then Al-Ghazzali compares reading of mystical experiences and having one, to knowing about health and being healthy. The point is that being healthy far exceeds the importance of merely knowing about health, as being “in” the mystical experience makes knowing about it pale by comparison. He continues,
How great, for example, is the difference between knowing the definitions of health, of satiety, with their causes and conditions, and being really healthy or filled. How different to know in what drunkenness consists — as being a state occasioned by a vapor that rises from the stomach — and being drunk effectively. Without doubt, the drunken man knows neither the definition of drunkenness nor what makes it interesting for science. Being drunk, he knows nothing; whilst the physician, although not drunk, knows well in what drunkenness consists, and what are its predisposing conditions. Similarly, there is a difference between knowing the nature of abstinence, and being abstinent of having one's soul detached from the world. Thus I had learned what words could teach of Sufism, but what was left could be learned neither by study nor through the ears, but solely by giving one's self up to ecstasy and leading a pious life.
At this point Al-Ghazzali reflects on what has kept him from experiencing the mysteries of the Sufis. He didn't have control of his passions, which kept him from having a unitive experience with God.
Reflecting on my own situation, I found myself tied down by a multitude of bonds — temptations on every side. Considering my teaching, I found it was impure before God. I saw myself struggling with all my might to achieve glory and to spread my name.
What follows this personal revelation is an account of his attempt to break away from his life in Baghdad, at the end of which he fell ill with a paralysis of the tongue.
Then, feeling my own weakness, and having entirely given up my own will, I repaired to God like a man in distress who has no more resources. He answered, as he answers the wretch who invokes him. My heart no longer felt any difficulty in renouncing glory, wealth, and my children. So I quitted Baghdad, and reserving from my fortune only what was indispensable for my subsistence, I distributed the rest. I went to Syria, where I remained about two years, with no other occupation than living in retreat and solitude, conquering my desires, combating my passions, training myself to purify my soul, to make my character perfect, to prepare my heart for meditating on God — all according to the methods of the Sufis, as I had read of them.