Islam Islamic Mysticism Mysticism

Knowledge, Mastery and the Call to Sainthood

Marx, according to Lenin, argues that society only establishes the State to resolve class conflict– the state organs like the police, bureaucracy, and judiciary are inflicted on the population by the ruling class. A Marxist revolution replaces the “special force” (army and police) of the bourgeois state with a “general force” of an armed people (rather than an armed coercive government). The alternative to the coercive power of the State and its institutions was a tribal or clan system of informal power and respect. Poverty and homelessness are almost non-existent along informal chains of power.

The criminal justice system of the police and public prosecutor is a bourgeois system to track down criminals according to a bourgeois legal code. Our rights are beholden to agreement by a police officer or judge. Should they not agree to our rights, we go to jail. (Foucault discusses the identical function of a psychiatrist and judge colluding to imprison a citizen in a mental asylum.) What gives them that power? Where exactly does the coercive power derive from?

Religious experience is about dropping the formal channels of power and making them informal. At first, memorizing a prayer is learned from an institution (or book, published or transmitted by an authority or institution) but as we achieve mastery, the prayer becomes familiar and knowledge becomes part of us.

This is how all knowledge functions. Like learning how to play chess, first we learn the pieces, then how they move, then how the pieces interact with each other. The holistic understanding of mastery on the other hand:

Not many chess players come close. “The amateur sees pieces and movement,” writes [neoconservative columnist and serious chess player Charles] Krauthammer. “The expert, additionally, sees sixty-four squares with holes and lines and spheres of influence. The genius apprehends a unified field within which space and force and mass are interacting valences — a bishop tears the board in half, and a pawn bends the space around it in the way mass can reshape space in the Einsteinian universe.”

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, by David Shenk

Learning the alphabet works the same way, first letters, then interactions between letters, then words then sentences.

Krauthammer alludes to the nature of mastery in 20th century science overturning 18th and 19th century understanding. With the Greeks, Pythagoras and Euclid explained for us two-dimensional space (trigonometry and geometry), Newton expanded it to our understanding of three-dimensional space (physics, gravity and calculus), and finally Einstein and Plank explained the subatomic and faster-than-light extremes of the universe (quantum physics and relativity). [1]

To understand the implications of quantum theory, this video is illuminating (from the film What the Bleep Do We Know?Double-Slit Experiment), as is the film.

For most people, however, the intermediate levels are fine. To move your refrigerator, you have to use Newton’s Law of Momentum (p=mv), not Einstein’s faster-than-light theories. Even though they both are true, they apply in different situations. Most people will never be chess masters, or kung fu masters, or master swordsmiths or Nobel Prize winners in chemistry. A Euclidean-Newtonian-Cartesian understanding of most things will suffice. A master has a quantum-relativisitic grasp on the subject.

What constitutes a Master? In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he proposes 10,000 hours of practice as a rule to achieve mastery of a subject. What is the definition of mastery? A novice has to strive to, say, chop through a pile of bricks, he has to work towards competence. A master has to try if he wants to *not break the bricks, he can’t not be competent. Which brings me to Lenin’s theory. A master has a grasp of the subject in his informal understanding, his personal possession. A novice learns it from institutions and is dependent on it.

Religion seems to be making to same point. I always thought Hinduism was alone among world religions for saying this:

Just as a small reservoir of water is of little use when water is flooding on every side, this is the value of the Vedas and other scriptures to a wise man.

(Bhagvad Gita 2:46)

This is an astonishing thing for a religious text to say: throw out all religious texts! I can think of no other religion which says this, but wait! Buddha said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”. There is no source of religious authority, it seems, for the self-realized person. The prophet Buddha (peace be upon him) is saying kill the religious authority. I am told by an Orthodox friend that Judaism recognizes the concept of knowledge and spiritual understanding of God which few men attain but is greater than words or books. Even in Islam, the noble Ali (رضي الله عنه) said he could write 70 volumes on the Fatiha alone (7 verses of the introduction of the Qur’an). So much commentary and exegesis is possible by enlightened men. This speaks to religion and God being deeper than normally understood, even by priests and clerics. The Gita goes further:

Out of thousands among men,
Scarcely one may endeavor for perfection;
And of those who have achieved perfection,
Scarcely one knows Me in truth.

(Bhagvad Gita 7:3)

Lenin speaks of purifying the revolutionary soul, and restoring his vision of proper Marxist ideology “just as the Christians, after their religion had been given the status of a state religion, ‘forgot’ the ‘naivete’ of primitive Christianity with its democratic revolutionary spirit.” The call to sainthood is to abolish formal, institutional understanding of God, and to make it personal again.

By AFarooqui

I write about the dichotomies present in religion, gathered mostly from discussions with average Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists.

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