Islamic Mysticism and an Overview of World Religions.

By Afroza Begum



The butchers used the crudest tools, and so they did when falling in
1971. Disciple of Munir; famous for his "Kabar" did not find one for
himself, and today Azad fell, he fell for us. For us, who rejoiced
victory and forgot to give our flesh and blood to the
word 'Secularism' written in our constitution bought at the cost of
three million martyrs.

Mamtazuddin wrote, and he wrote it rightly, but we have always put
our faith, blood those spilled by the martyrs for freedom and the
bloods those spilled by Azad can not go in vain, never. It must give
birth the resolute to unite and wage the battle dedicating all of our
flesh and blood, now or never.

Long live Azad, long live Rationslist Day.

Afroza Begum
Dhaka, 1st March, 2004.

Islamic Mysticism and an Overview of World Religions.
Although Islam as religion remained very authoritarian right from its
inception, but still could not escape the influence of mysticism
hence the advent of `Sufi' school of Islam were found to come about
dating not much later from the end of the Golden era of early
Caliphate of Islam.

In fact, the origins of Islamic mysticism can be traced back to the
8th century. A consequence of the rapid spread of Islam under the
Umayyad dynasty was the exposure of Muslims to a large number of
different ethnic groups and the acquisition of considerable wealth
that was the fruit of military conquest. The growing opulence of
Islam was symbolized by the relocation of the capital of the empire
from Medina to the more cosmopolitan city of Damascus. In reaction to
the worldlier outlook of the Ummayads, various groups and figures
emerged who encouraged a return to the pure values of the Prophet and
the Qur'an. One such figure, Hasan al-Basri (642-728), preached a
rejection of the world and courageously criticized those in power
when he felt that they were not conducting themselves according to
the ethical standards of Islam. A second figure, Rabi'ah al-Adawiyah
(d.801), popularly known as Rabi'ah Basri cultivated the attainment
of mystical union with God through the love of God. A third, and
controversial, mystic, al-Hallaj (857-922), lived as a wandering
preacher who gathered around him a large number of disciples. Such
was al-Hallaj's sense of the intimate presence of God that he
sometimes appeared to be identifying himself with God. He is reported
to have made one statement - "I am the Truth!" - that caused such
outrage that he was imprisoned for eight years and in 922 crucified
by execution. Al-Hallaj's death illustrates in an extreme way the
tensions that would characterize the relationship between Sufi
mysticism and the Islamic legal authorities.
During the early dynastic Muslim rules, the kind of loose master-
disciple relationship characteristic of 9th century mystical Islam
gradually evolved into organized establishments. By the 11th century
there were distinctive groups associated with a particular master.
These groups, however, were often not cohesive enough to survive the
death of the master. It was only in the 12th and 13th centuries
concurring with the decline of strong cohesion of dynastic Muslim
rules those Sufi orders emerged which were stable enough to continue
after the death of the founder. This continuity was achieved through
the current master nominating a successor who would lead the order
following the current master's death. Thus, these orders were able to
trace their origins through a chain of masters. Such orders were
called tariqahs.
The three regions principally associated with Sufism are Mesopotamia
(Iran and Iraq), Central Asia (including South, South-East Asia), and
North Africa.
The most important orders to emerge out of Mesopotamia
are "Rifa'iyyah", "Suhrawardiyyah", "Kubrawiyyah" and "Qadiriyyah".
These are all among the earliest of the Sufi orders. Rifa'iyyah was
founded in Basra, Iraq in the 12th century, soon spreading from Iraq
into Syria and Egypt. Suhrawardiyyah, also founded in 12th century
Iraq spread westwards into India. Qadiriyyah and Kubrawiyyah are both
Iranian orders. Qadiriyyah, the earlier of the two orders, emerged in
the 12th century, and spread both eastwards and westwards into India
and North Africa. Kubrawiyyah is historically linked to
Suhrawardiyyah in that its founder, Nayim al-din Kubra (1145-1221),
was a disciple of the founder of Suhrawardiyyah, Abu Najib as--
Suhrawardi (1097-1168).
Sufism was transplanted into North Africa as a result of the
expansion of the Rifa'i order into Syria and then Egypt. The presence
of Rifa'iyyah inspired the founding of other orders. In the 13th
century Badawiyyah was founded in Egypt by Ahmad al-Badawi (1199-
1276), who acquired a reputation for mysticism and the performance of
miracles. This order continues today and thousands of visitors attend
its annual festival in Tanta, Egypt.
At about the same time that Sufism was developing in Egypt, it was
gaining in strength in North-West Africa through the support of the
ruling Almohad dynasty (1130-1269), who ruled over Morocco, Algeria,
Tunisia and Muslim Spain. In 13th century Tunisia a certain al-
Shadhili acquired a group of disciples and formed who formed the
basis of an order that came to be known as Shadhiliyyah. This order
continues to flourish in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
In the 18th century the Islamic world fell under the influence of a
reform movement called Wahabiyyah. This movement sought to rid Islam
of what it regarded as illegitimate innovations such as the worship
of saints and to encourage strict adherence to the shari'ah. The
spirit of reform spread into North Africa, leading to the
establishment of new orders, which rejected the more extreme forms of
behaviour characteristic of some Sufi orders. An important order that
came out of this context is Tidjaniyyah, which was founded in the
1780s by Ahmad al-Tidjani (d.1815) and which rejected many popular
Sufi practices such as the adoration of saints. This order continues
to exist today and has spread throughout North Africa and western Sub-
Saharan Africa.
Another order of this type is Sanusiyyah, which was founded in
Cyrenaica (in eastern Libya) in the 1840s by Muhammad b. Ali Sanusi
(1787-1859). This order was characterized by the rejection of all
forms of luxury and a strong sense of veneration for the Prophet.
Following the departure of European colonialists from North Africa in
the 1940s and 1950s the Sanusis established the state of Libya. The
Sanusis were overthrown in 1969 by Colonel Muammar al-Qadafi. Since
then the Sanusis have provided an important source of opposition to
the Qadafi regime and survive to the present day in spite of the
Qadafi regimes attempt to curtail their activities.
In Central Asia and Anatolia (equivalent to modern day Turkey) a
number of major Sufi orders emerged between the 12th and 17th
centuries. The earliest of these, Yasawiyyah, was founded in the
region now known as Turkestan and played a major role in spreading
Islam among the Turkish tribes of Central Asia. Possibly deriving
from Yasawiyyah is the Bektashiyyah order. According to tradition,
Hajj Bektash, the putative founder of Bektashiyyah, originally
belonged to the Yasawiyyah order. Bektashiyyah continues to survive
in the Balkan region to the present day.
Another Central Asian order is Chishtiyyah. The origins of this order
are uncertain, although the founder is generally believed to be Mu'in
al-Din Chishti (c.1142-1236), a native of Sijistan. The order
gradually spread into India where it remains today as the largest and
most important Sufi order.
Early doctrines of the Chishtiyyah were based on the concept of
wahdat al-wujud, the negation of private property. The Chishtis
viewed government and authority with deep mistrust, and refused to
accept offers of patronage from rulers and wealthy persons. Spiritual
rules ascribed to Mu'in al-Din, the order's founder, stressed a stern
asceticism that forbade the earning or borrowing of money and begging
for food.
A second key area of doctrine concerns the correct form of
repentance. Sufis of the Chishtiyyah classified repentance into three
Firstly, repentance of the present - which is the process of being
penitent about one's sins. Secondly, repentance of the past - which
is a reminder of the need to respect other people's rights. Thirdly,
repentance of the future - which means that one, should decide not to
commit any sin again. However, while seeking to liberate themselves
from sin, Chishtiyyah Sufis discourage their followers from dwelling
on their sins since this encourages an attitude of self-persecution.
The Chishtiyyah order places great emphasis on obedience and self-
discipline. In the thirteenth century the Chishtis paid respect to
their leaders by completely prostrating themselves before them with
their forehead on the ground. Drugs such as hashish, tobacco and
alcohol are strictly prohibited.
The origins of the Chishtiyyah order are uncertain. The foundation of
the order is generally ascribed to Mu'in al-Din Chishti (c.1142-
1236), a native of Sijistan, about whose life very little is known.
The movement benefited from the successive leadership of a number of
famous figures, some of whom are venerated as saints. Two of these
leaders - Nizam al-Din Auliya (d. 1325) and Alauddin 'Ali ibn Ahmad
Sabir (d. 1291) - established their own branches of the order
respectively known Nizamiyyah and Sabiriyyah. These two branches were
instrumental in the spread of the order into and throughout India.
Over time the movement gradually went into decline, but was revived
at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Khwaja Nur Muhammad.
Although the order remains one of the most important tariqas in India
it has not expanded its influence beyond India. The tomb of Mu'in al-
Din Chishti at Ajmer in Rajsthan India remains to this day a place of
popular pilgrimage for all under the influence of mysticism
irrespective of religious disciplines of faith.
The Chishtis use vocal music in their religious services, and wear
clothes dyed with ochre or the bark of the acacia tree. Chishtiyyah
groups continued to exist in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Mawalwiyyah traces its origins to the famous Turkish mystic and poet
Al-Rumi (1207-1273). The order's name derives from the Arabic word
Mawlana (our master), a title given to Al-Rumi by the order.
Mawlawiyyah is based in the Turkish town of Konya. Like many Turkish
orders it was effectively suppressed when Turkey became a secular
state in 1925. In other parts of the Islamic world the once important
order has seriously declined or disappeared altogether.
In the 18th century, the Islamic world fell under the influence of a
reform movement called Wahabiyyah. This movement sought to rid Islam
of what it regarded as illegitimate innovations such as the worship
of saints and to encourage strict adherence to Qur'an and Sunnah.
Although Wahabiyyah is considered historically an independent sect of
Islam but it has its roots into the early Islamic School of
Jurisprudence founded by Ahmad b. Hanbal (d.855). He studied law
under different masters, including Imam Shafi'i (the founder of his
own school). He is regarded as more learned in the traditions than in
jurisprudence. His status also derives from his collection and
exposition of the hadiths. His major contribution to Islamic
scholarship is a collection of fifty-thousand traditions known
as 'Musnadul-Imam Hanbal'.

In spite of the importance of Hanbal's work, his school did not enjoy
in his times those during the hay days of Islam, similar popularity
of the three preceding Sunni schools of law, namely Malikiyyah,
Shafi'iyyah and Hanafiyyah. Hanbal's followers were regarded as
reactionary and troublesome on account of their reluctance to give
personal opinion on matters of law, their rejection of analogy, their
fanatic intolerance of views other than their own, and application of
extreme methods applied for exclusion of opponents from power and
judicial office. Their unpopularity led to periodic bouts of
persecution against them.

The later history of the school has been characterised by
fluctuations in their fortunes. Hanbali scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya
(d.1328) and Ibn Qayyim al-Jouzia (d.1350) did display more tolerance
to other views than their predecessors and were instrumental in
making the teachings of Hanbali more generally accessible. From time
to time Hanbaliyyah became an active and numerically strong school in
certain areas under the jurisdiction of the 'Abbassid' dynastic rule.
But its importance gradually declined under the Ottoman Turks. The
emergence of the Wahabi in the nineteenth century and its challenge
to Ottoman authority in alliance with British Imperialist forces
enabled Hanbaliyyah resurrected as Wahabiyyah to enjoy a period of
revival. Today the school is officially recognized as authoritative
in Saudi Arabia and areas within the Persian Gulf.

Wahhabiyyah the most orthodox school of Islam, emerged in the middle
of the 18th century in Arabia as both a rigorous in religious and
political movement responding to the decline of the Ottoman Empire
and the increasing strength of Shi'a in Iran. Its founder, Ibn 'Abd
al-Wahhab (1703-92), had witnessed and recorded in his treatises many
examples of laxity, superstition, and blind allegiance to Walis (Sufi
saints) during his travels through Iraq, Syria, Philistine and the
Arabian Peninsula.
The political character of the movement took the form of opposition
to the ruling Ottoman Empire. In 1744 Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab formed an
alliance with a local Bedouin chieftain, Muhammad Ibn Sa'ud (1765),
who accepted his doctrine and undertook its defense and propagation.
The ferocious demolition of shrines, tombstones and the capture of
Mecca caused alarm in the Ottoman government, which dispatched an
army to crush the movement. The decisive defeat of the Bedouin troops
in 1818 brought to an end the first Sa'udi-Wahhabi venture.
A remnant of the Wahhabi movement survived in a pocket of Central

In 1902 Abd al-Aziz Ibn Sa'ud, who was from the Sa'udi family and a
follower of the Bedouin faith of the Wahhabiyyah, took Riyadh, an
event which led to his gradual conquest of the interior of the
Arabian Peninsula. In 1927 Sa'ud signed a treaty with the British
(who at that time were controlling parts of the Arabian peninsula),
which gave him full independence in exchange for his recognition of
British suzerainty over the Gulf sheikdoms. Finally in 1932 he named
his state the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabiyyah then became the
official doctrine of the state. Today the Saudi state remains firmly
rooted in the Wahhabi creed.
We know nowadays, more clearly than ever before, that there are very
many different religions throughout the World and also there are
differences within all those religions themselves guiding the
followers in different manners,
(a) In the conceptual aspect (what people think, believe, or have
in mind),
(b) In the behavioural aspect (what people do),
(c) In the social aspect (the way people are grouped with each
other, or relate to others), and,
(d) In the subjective aspect (what people feel). Since there are
many religions and many different inner influences within each of the
broad spectrum of individual religions, it is natural for us to ask
what they have in common, and how they differ. However, while it is
easy to ask many questions about religions and mysticism, there may
not always be easy answers to our questions.
Religions, those are agnostics or non-agnostics, monotheism or
polytheism, mystics or theosophical and many more are widespread
throughout the world, being found in many different countries mingled
with faith, doctrines and practices so diverse in nature, that
puzzles us to find a common foothold of unison of human society.
The most important examples of very widespread religions are
Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. However, when we look at these
closely we see that they are divided into many varieties. In Sri
Lanka and in South-East Asia the tradition of Theravada Buddhism is
established and Buddhism in these countries shares a common set of
particularly ancient scriptures known as the Pali Canon. In Mahayana
Buddhism, however, other scriptures are held in strong esteem. Even
within Mahayana Buddhism we can see major differences, for example,
between the strong simplicity of Chan or Zen Buddhism, the devotional
faith of Pure Land Buddhism in several varieties, and the mysterious
detail of Tibetan Buddhism, or of the Shingon Buddhism of Japan.
In the case of Christianity the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia,
Romania and elsewhere are closely related to each other, but they are
rather different from the western or "latin" Catholicism. Dissimilar
to both of these major Christian traditions are the numerous forms of
Protestant Christianity found all over the world, examples being
Methodism, the Baptist churches, and Pentecostalism. The Muslim world
also has its share of variations. The most prominent division is that
between the Sunnites and Shi'ites, but within these two streams there
are further variations. The various forms of Buddhism, Christianity
or Islam usually consider themselves to represent the true tradition,
from which others have in various ways departed. And indeed some of
these varieties are so different from each other that they might
almost be regarded as different religions. So the question of
orthodoxy, or authenticity arises.
Other religions are found mainly in one society or country. Important
examples of these are Confucianism (China), Shinto (Japan) and
Hinduism (India). Though these religions have an especially long and
illustrious cultural history, there are other religions of this type,
which are, individually, less well known. These are the primal
religions of small-scale societies, that is, the local religious
traditions of various kinds which are found all over the world and
which regulate the life pattern of the peoples concerned, for example
in most of the countries of Africa and Latin America, in Indonesia,
and in many parts of Asia. Prominent among these are the traditions,
which we sum up, for convenience, under the name of "shamanism". Even
if we restrict the term shamanism to the peoples of North Asia,
especially Siberia, there are important parallels in South-east Asia,
in Africa, and in the Americas.
Other religions, while specific to one particular ethnic group, have
spread widely through the world in the course of that people's
history. The most obvious example of this is Judaism. Other examples
are the religion of the Parsees and of the Sikhs. To some extent
these religions are open to converts from other ethnic groups, or
they convey a message, which addresses humankind in general. At the
same time the relationship to ethnic identity is quite important in
these cases.
The fascinating religions of ancient cultures have often died away
with those cultures themselves. Examples here are the religions of
ancient Egypt, of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and of the
sophisticated cultures of South and Central America such as the
Incas, the Aztecs and the Maya. In some cases we have been bequeathed
a rich mythological literature or astonishing monuments such as the
pyramids of Egypt or Central America.
Religions, which have disappeared, still exercise strong fascination
on our imagination, stimulating us to think about the nature of the
universe and the passage and destiny of human life within it. At the
same time new religions have been born through the centuries and are
still coming into being today, as a form of answer to the apparent
needs of the time. Think here, for example, of Sikhism in the Punjab,
Theosophy in India and in Europe, Scientology in America, Umbanda in
Brazil, Won Buddhism or the Unification Church in Korea, Tenrikyo or
Byakko Shinkokai in Japan, Cao Dai in Vietnam, Cargo Cults in
Melanesia and New Guinea, Mario Legio in Kenya, Maria Lionza in
Venezuela, the Kimbanguist church in the lower Congo region, and so
on. They address recurrent questions in human experience, while at
the same time, because they are new, they may seem to threaten the
established order of things and are therefore quite controversial.
The overall number of religions is far greater than those mentioned
here. Almost every country has its own special kinds of religion,
whether new or traditional, as well as its own varieties of some of
the well-known religions mentioned above. It is not surprising that
people often ask how this variety of religions is to be regarded.
What are the similarities, the differences and the relationships
between them?
For many people, the standpoint of their own traditional religion or
personal faith will provide a starting point for thinking about these
questions. Sometimes, therefore, the many religions are seen as
alternatives or even rivals. Sometimes they are seen, rather, as
additional options for the individual, and sometimes they are seen as
variants of a single religion, which is common to all humankind.
Depending on the standpoint, it is quite common for people to regard
religions other than their own as partial but more or less inadequate
revelations or teachings. The real thing, the final truth, is then
regarded as the teaching taught by one's own religion. This is often
the position taken by religions, which teach the unity of all
religions, such as the Baha'i or the Unification Church. This
understanding may be satisfactory for those who have reasons for
holding one of the specific faiths mentioned, and there are quite a
few other examples.
The three major religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, all
regard themselves, according to most interpretations, as offering the
clearest, the most complete, or the final teaching which humankind
requires. In this context, however, not adopting the standpoint of
any one religious faith or teaching, rather since there are many
different standpoints of this kind, let us make it possible try to
stand back from them and think the matter over a little more
It will be better for the moment, therefore, to ask in what ways
religions can be compared or classified within the general history of
religions or the comparative study of religions. The comparative
study of religions, as developed in modern times, has worked in
different ways. Think about some of these ways briefly, here are
three important questions to be asked.
The first question is:
(a) Is there an outline structure, which religions share, or mostly
share? To put it another way, what is the "shape" of religion? What
are the basic features of any religion, and how do they fit together?
These are questions about the general morphology of religion. This
question is really the starting point for other questions. For
example, if we can agree that one important aspect of religion is
what people do, then we can go on to ask about what they do in more
detail, and to make comparisons. But what are the other aspects of
religion? Is there a stable picture, which we can hold in our minds
in this respect?
The second question is:
(b) Can the various parts of different religions be compared with
each other? For example, is prayer in one religion like prayer in
another religion? Do people have the same kinds of feelings when they
go to various religious buildings? What sorts of people have a
special role to play in religion: monks and nuns, priests, shamans,
prophets, Ulemas etc.? Are these the same, or similar, in various
religions? The comparison of particular parts, or elements, which
seem to recur in more than one religion, is called typology. To be
even clearer, this may be called as typology of elements. Though it
seems very attractive to see similarities in this way, but the
elements compared in this case are only parts of religions, which in
them consist of many elements and are therefore altogether more
complex. This leads into the third question.
The third question is:
(c) Are there different kinds of religions? To put it another way,
what happens when we compare whole religions with each other? Can we
conclude that some religions are of one particular kind, and that
others are of another kind? This may be called the general typology
of religions. It may also be helpful to think of it as a holistic
typology, that is, a typology of religions as systems complete in
These three kinds of question have often been confused in the story
of comparative religion. However, this is not the right place to go
into scholarly polemics. Instead, it will be better to illustrate
here in a little more detail what is meant by these questions in
comparative religion. However, there are a number of authors written
volumes in which widely based comparative studies have been
First then, let us consider more fully the question of the morphology
of religion and mysticism. While religions may vary in their avowed
goals and in the way in which they conceive of and present the
meaning of their activities, there is nevertheless a basic structure
which can be found in every religion as well as in mystic versions of
religions. This is patterned according to four basic aspects, or
dimensions, namely:
(a) The conceptual aspect (what people think, believe, or have in
(b) The behavioral aspect (what people do)
(c) The social aspect (the way people are grouped with each
other, or relate to others)
(d) The subjective aspect (what people feel)
These four aspects may be significant for other realms of life
particularly concerning religious beliefs touching humankind
differently even finding their behavioral pattern in certain
activities, such as sport, politics or business. However they are all
other different aspects, which are present in some way in every
religion. If one of them is overlooked, something important will be
lacking in our understanding of a religion.

From time to time people have thought that the most important thing
about religion is to be found above all in just one of these aspects.
For example, some older dictionaries define religion as "belief in
supernatural beings", thus emphasizing the conceptual aspect. Leading
thinkers about religion have often assumed that its basic
characteristic is the relationship between humankind and God.
Clearly, this reflects the ideas of one family of religions, namely
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, this characteristic is not
typical of Jainism or Buddhism. It has often been said, for example
of Hinduism or Judaism, that they are "a way of life", a statement
which emphasizes the behavioral or social aspect of religion. But
most religions would claim in some sense to be "a way of life". And
this does not mean that the conceptual aspect of religion is
unimportant. Indeed there are most important conceptions such as
Torah (in Judaism) or karma (in Hinduism) without which the way of
life of the people would be very different. In other discussions
about religion, we hear about the importance of what people feel or
experience subjectively. These may be feelings of devotion, joy,
ecstasy, mystical awareness, or inward peace. But in all these cases,
the careful student of religion will notice that there is also a
conceptual accompaniment to the subjective aspect, and also in some
sense a social and a behavioral aspect. To conclude, all four aspects
are important in the morphology of religion.

In order to ponder upon a little more about each of those main
aspects of religion, enquiries may be extended to proceed to the
typology of each of these elements.

We may begin to think about the typology of elements by looking a
little more closely at some of the details of the conceptual aspect
of religion. We can notice at once that there are various kinds of
myth in different religions: myths of origin and creation, myths of
salvation, myths about the end of the world. But there are also non-
mythical doctrinal patterns, often of great complexity and beauty,
ways of thinking about the meaning of human life, which overlap and
interact with each other. The various ideas about God, gods and
goddesses, or high spiritual beings, are a part of the wide field to
be explored here. Moreover there are also other ideas such
as "karma", "justice", "rectitude", "love" or "compassion", which are
of great importance in defining religious systems. Finally, it is
well known that those who think about their own religion often work
hard, conceptually, to establish what they believe to be the correct
interpretation or to offer a more appropriate interpretation for the
time in which they live. Thus we might consider an initial typology
of religious concepts as follows:
(a) Narrative concepts such as myth and legend,
(b) Focusing concepts of the divine or "the numinous",
(c) Underlying value concepts such as karma, justice and love,
(d) Interpretative concepts such as "orthodoxy", "guidance",
or "consensus" (as in Islam).
The picture is sure to become more interesting, the more we look at
it. For example, any of these three types might be taken up and
organized into a doctrinal system, or not. At the same time, each of
the four initial types can be considered in further detail: various
kinds of myth, various kinds of divinity, various value concepts, and
various approaches to the controversial question of interpretation.
The other fundamental aspects of religion, the behavioral, the social
and the subjective aspects can all be further studied in the same

We may consider next, very briefly, the aspect of behavior. This can
be broadly differentiated into explicitly religious behavior and
religious behavior in the context of daily life. First just one
example of religious behavior will be explored, namely prayer and
meditation, in order to illustrate the way in which the
characteristics of different religions overlap. It may at first seem
to be quite obvious, in the context of one religion known to us, what
prayer is, or what meditation is. Moreover prayer and meditation
might seem to be rather different from each other. At the same time
there are some interesting connections between the two. Both prayer
and meditation are forms of ritual behavior, which, in different
situations, are more or less tightly structured. The word "ritual"
means here that the behavior is being carried out in the form of a
learned pattern and with a specific intent. At the same time,
experienced practitioners may not feel themselves to be constrained
by the learned form, so that the ritual aspect is weakened.

In many religions prayers are offered to ask for benefits such as
healing, protection or general prosperity and well-being. Prayers for
rain, for example, are found in many different countries and
religions. At other times and places prayers may be offered in order
to avert disasters such as storms or flooding. In other cases,
however, prayers are understood to be more like a kind of
conversation with revered demonstration of union or obedience with
the spiritual beings leading into a feeling of communion with them.
When prayer is moved on to this plane, the prayer have less to do
with the daily, physical needs of the persons making the prayer.
Rather, the spiritual being who is addressed moves into the centre of
attention. To give some specific examples, Japanese Shinto prayers
for benefits in this life are not very different from some kinds of
petitionary prayer in Christianity or Islam. But on the other hand
other kinds of prayer in Christianity or Islam are more like the
obedience or devotion (bhakti) addressed to a particular divinity
such as Vishnu or Kali found in some varieties of Hinduism, be it
idolatry or not. From this we can see that, while people may pray to
different gods and goddesses about different things, there are some
similarities in what they are doing. But there are also different
kinds of prayer within one single religion.

Let us move on to consider meditation. The experience of relating to
a god or goddess is known to occur not only in prayer, but also in
meditations as practiced in various religions. However gods are not
always important in meditations. Some meditations are rather a
process of self-examination, of self-realization or of self-
knowledge. Once again the religious person as such becomes the centre
of attention, though in a different way from before. Buddhism,
especially Mahayana Buddhism, includes both kinds of meditations,
that is to say, meditations with and without divinities. On many
occasions, the wonderful figure of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva plays a
central role in meditation. However meditation can also be structured
around the analysis of one's own physical body or breathing
processes, or on the relationship of thought processes to non-
discrimination or emptiness. Similarly, in religions for which the
concept of God is of central importance, such as Christianity or
Islam, silence itself may be regarded as the purest form of prayer.
This is known as contemplation, which may be regarded as a form of
meditation. With prayer and meditation therefore we have an example
of two closely related types of religious behavior which we can
distinguish, but which also share some characteristics.

Though one theme has been considered in a little detail here, we
should not overlook that there are many varieties of religious
behavior, whether ritualized or not, which are important in the
typological study of religion. Not all-religious behavior has the
appearance of a ritual. We must realize that religious behavior is
often a part, even an important part, of daily life. That is to say,
people behave in a certain way towards other people, during their
normal activities, because they have learned to do this through
religion. They have learned their behavior in the context of the
religious teaching, which they wish to honor in their lives.

The social forms of religion also provide a wide field for
comparative study. Some religions provide a symbolic system, which
provides meaning for the life a complete society, that is, a society
which is also integrated in the other main features of life such as
economics, custom and law, learning and socialization. Small-scale
societies in general will usually be found to have, or to have had, a
socially integrative religious system with regular features such as a
myth of origin, care of ancestors, rites of transition, and
calendrical economic rituals. In more complex societies, however, we
find other religions, which display the social form of a limited
community with a special interest, existing as best it can in a
social environment, which may be hostile. The difference between
these two types is quite important. At the same time the picture is
not at all simple.

Among the well-known religions of the world we can easily distinguish
between the ethnically oriented Brahmanism/Hinduism, Confucianism,
Shinto or Judaism on the one hand, and the inter-ethnic religions
such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam on the other hand. But the
religions in these two groups have participated in both of the
sociologically distinguishable types in different historical
situations. Since many centuries, however, more complex societies
have found room for alternative religious groups within society as a
whole, though these have often been regarded as a threat in the first
instance. Both Buddhism and Christianity, now widely established,
were once regarded as a threat to the societies in which they arose.
When considering the social forms of religion, much attention has
also been paid to the various kinds of office or function assigned to
special individuals such as priests and priestesses, priestly kings,
prophets, monks, nuns, shamans, mediums, administrators, gurus, and
many more.

There are also other questions, which have come to the fore. For
example, sometimes much attention has been given recently to the
various ways in which religion has been transposed into different
positions in modern, complex societies. Attention has been drawn, for
example, to "civil religion", "invisible religion" and "implicit
religion". These all refer to dimensions of religion, which have
social force without having formal, visible religious organization.
The typology of the social forms of religion, therefore, should have
the following preliminary headings:
(a) Social forms of the religions of integrated, small-scale
(b) Social forms of religions forming voluntary communities
within wider society, such as churches, temple organizations, and so
(c) The religiously conceived social identity, relations and
functions of individuals, and
(d) The social forms of religion, which is not explicitly
organized or advertised as "religion".
The subjective aspect of religion can also be thought about
typologically. It may be argued that people's feeling about religion
can be quite varied, depending on their personality. Some people have
a positive, uncomplicated attitude about what seems to them to be a
beneficent, providential God, while others experience spiritual
agonies, which need to be resolved through a religious process.
Thirdly there is the mystical tradition which, is characterized
subjectively by the sense of union with God, called this the "sense
of the numinous", and believed that this could be found in religious
experience all over the world.

An important contribution in drawing attention to features of
religious subjectivity in more wide-spread areas of cultural history
although we cannot be content with thinking about religious
subjectivity from within one culture only undertaking much more
balanced view of Western and Asian religious subjectivity. Now, that
a better inter-cultural perspective has been achieved a more balanced
typology of religious subjectivity is coming into view. At the
broadest level of definition three types can be distinguished. These
(a) The correlation type, in which a sense of relationship to
transcendent divine being is paramount,
(b) The international type, in which a sense of closeness,
integration or unity with the divine is paramount, and
(c) The departure-oriented type, in which the sense of giving up
attachments to material life and to conceptual constructs is
Within these types there are further variations and they are
sometimes found in combination with each other in a particular
religion. Third to be considered is the question of the general
typology of religions, that is to say, the question of a
classification of religions, which groups them into different kinds.
In thinking about this question, we are not considering whether a
religion is especially good, not so good, or even in some way bad.
These are matters about which people must reflect and debate in other
ways. The question here is: Are there different kinds of religions,
whatever we may think about them. People studying religions soon come
to realize that there are indeed many kinds of religions. It has also
often been declared that there are just a few main types with many
variations. People interested in religious ideas may sort out
religions according to what their leading ideas are: theism, monism,
pantheism, etc., while people interested in sociology may emphasize
features relating to society: state religions, civil religion,
popular religion, and so on.

However, in a general typology of religions it is more appropriate to
take account of several aspects. At the most general levels of
differentiation there seem to be two major kinds of religion. These
will be explained briefly below. Each of these kinds can be
differentiated further in various ways. Moreover there are many
examples of mixed cases, religions which for historical reasons have
taken on some of the characteristics of the other kind. The two main
kinds have a distinctive social base, and therefore they were hinted
at a little while ago. But they also have other divergent features
which are related to the other categories of religion. Here they will
be presented very simply, so that there will remain plenty of room
for further discussion of this question by those who are interested.

The first major type of religion is the natural religion of a
particular society. As regards the social aspect, it is very clear
that such religions are there for all members of the society in
question. Usually they are more or less obliged to take part in it.
As explained above, all small-scale societies have such a religion,
and for them its main features are a myth of origin, care for the
ancestors, rites of transition, and calendrical economic rituals.
Here the conceptual and behavioral aspects of religion are to be
found. As far as the subjective aspect is concerned, the most
important feeling is the sense of relation with the deities who are
responsible for what happens in the world, whether beneficial or
threatening. Thus this type of religion is, in the aspect of
subjectivity, correlational. This kind of religion may be
called "primal religion". The expression "primal" means that
historically it has a certain priority, and that the basic aspects of
religion can all be found within it.

The second major type of religion can be given various names. We
might call it "salvation religion", "critical religion" or "guidance
religion". These religions are founded by special religious leaders
who have a distinctive message to give, over against the usual
assumptions of the society in which they live. The major religions of
the world belong to this type. But so, also, do a very large number
of smaller religions, which preach a special way of life to their
members. When they first arose, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam
stood in contradiction to their surroundings.
During the complex history of humankind, Buddhism, Christianity and
Islam established themselves as major religions. As a result, they
adapted themselves to various social and political pressures and
adopted some of the functions of primal religions. In many societies
they became the dominant religion, and in some periods of history
they have been more or less compulsory. Not surprisingly, in such
situations these religions then come to provide the usual rites of
transition, which every society needs. At the same time it is
interesting to see that some of the well-established "primal"
religions have given birth again and again to salvation religions or
guidance religions. So we see that there are Hindu or Shinto "sects"
who offer a universal message of salvation or guidance. These
religions however are optional or voluntary. They have their own
special teachings, their own social forms, and their own modes of
subjective religious feeling. Since changes of this kind,
called "crossovers" can be observed in both directions, the general
typology of religions therefore becomes more complicated than at
first appears.

In conclusion it must be said that the comparative study of religion
is a rich field for study and reflection. We should not jump too
hastily to conclusions! While learning about particular religions in
various countries, we should also begin to think about the ways in
which they are similar to each other, and the ways in which they are
distinctive. Keeping all the relevant knowledge in mind, with
pragmatic steps taken, we may try to find ways and means to live and
prosper in today's World practicing pluralism.

Dhaka, 29th February 2004
Acknowledgement: Overview of World Religions

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