Identical words often misinform

Believer and unbeliever seem identical in form

Take words alone and many a feud follows

Once meaning enters, calm follows

Errors of judgement often arise from the fact that a single term can carry multiple meanings or a single meaning can go under different names. Reaching uniform judgements about those multiple meanings or making multiple judgements about that single meaning is nothing other than misjudgement and error. And disentangling entangled terms is the duty of all seekers of knowledge. Religiosity is one such term. When we ask ourselves: « Was Iranian society more religious under the Qajar Dynasty or is it more religious today? Are modern western societies more religious than societies during the Middle Ages? », a bit of thought and reflection brings us to the realisation that, unless we clarify and disentangle the different layers of religiosity, we will never discover the answers to our questions. It may well be that society is more religious today in one sense and less so in another. Hence, distinguishing the different types and layers of religiosity is a prerequisite of religious theory and knowledge and a precondition of reform. If we take the volume of mourning ceremonies.

and fasts and tears and supplications and candles and pilgrimages and bows before the clergy, then the Qajar period will seem to be in the lead. If we take the volume of critical studies and opinions and debates about religion, we are quite likely to find today’s society more religious and more religion-minded. When we probe the matter further and see that, every type of religiosity, offers different interpretations of God and the Prophet and sin and obedience and joy and wretchedness, then we will see even more clearly the gravity and sensitivity of the matter.

Distinguishing different types of religiosity is certainly not a new or innovative idea.

When the Holy Koran speaks of the yamiyn (the ones on the right) and the sabiqun (the vanguards), it is offering a way of distinguishing different types of religiosity. And religious 2 scholars, who speak of legalistic, methodistic and idealistic religion or of the religion of initiation, the median and culmination, are touching on this same truth.

This article, too, will present, in brief, a categorisation of different types of religiosity which has differences and similarities with the above-mentioned divisions.

We will call these three types of religiosity, respectively: 1. Pragmatic (or utilitarian) religiosity; 2. Gnostic religiosity; and 3. Experiential religiosity.

First: Pragmatic (utilitarian) religiosity

In this type of religiosity, a view or an action’s ultimate purpose, utility and outcome (this worldly or other worldly) are of paramount importance to the believer. It is a religion for life (not synonymous with life or higher than life).

In its purely other-worldly forms, it wears the garb of asceticism and Sufism (Khajeh Abdollah Nesari) and, in its this-worldly forms, the garb of politics and statesmanship (Seyyed Jamal Afghani, etc.). Its central axis is emotion and practical rationality. Among the general masses, the emotional aspect gains the upper hand and, among learned people, the practical rationality (that is to say the capacity to match means to ends).

Pragmatic religiosity is mundane, causal (not reasoned), hereditary, deterministic (not arising from choice or free will), emotional, dogmatic, ritualistic, ideological, identity-bound, external, collective, legalistic-juristic, mythic, imitative, obedient, traditional and habitual.

Here, the volume of deeds is the measure of the intensity or otherwise of conviction: performing the hajj numerous times, visiting shrines, praying frequently and so on. Through these actions, the religious person feels more successful and closer to God. Mass rituals

and rites nourish this religiosity more than anything else. The frequency of collective prayers, mourning ceremonies, Koranic recitations, retreats, Friday prayers, gatherings and preaching sessions, crowds of believers at shrines and mosques, hordes of fighters in the

arenas of jihad amount to the glorification and splendour of this type of religiosity and serve as a source of pride to it. It both stirs up emotions and draws strength from them. Since this type of religiosity is hereditary and not based on reasoning, since emulation and obedience play the biggest role in perpetuating it, since it devotes itself to deeds rather than thought and reflection, and since it is constructed upon emotion and excitation rather than rational endeavour and inquiry, it gradually becomes tainted by dogmatism and prejudice and loses the capacity to tolerate dissent. It defends set habits and traditions dogmatically and sees people who tend to raise questions and reflect upon things as crooks and heretics. Hence, slowly but surely it goes down the path of casting out and excommunicating people.

This is the religiosity of the clergy, and clerics like to emphasise the importance of submission and emulation and religious passion and the performance of rites and rituals to believers. In this way, a believer’s religion becomes their identity and they defend it in the way they would defend their homeland or property or life, not in the way a scientist would defend a truth. In other words, they want religion so that they can feel like somebody and distinguish themselves from others, not because they want to arrive at some truth.

Believers, in this type of religiosity, are the slaves and God is the master and the sultan (not the God of wisdom, nor the Alluring Beloved). And the Prophet wears the cloak of a commander, issuing orders about what a believer may and may not do, and speaking of glad tidings and ominous portents (not an insightful man of knowledge with exalted experiences, nor a wise and brilliant thinker). And sin amounts to disobeying his orders rather than being something that causes a contraction of the heart. And obedience is part of a deal aimed at accruing some gain or benefit, not something that causes an expansion of the heart, nor yet a participation in a spiritual experience. And following the Prophet means carrying out his commands. Morality is always relegated to second place in this religiosity and is considered to be decorative at best, entailing no religious burdens or duties in itself. Since imitative believers do not have the courage and strength to look at the Exalted for themselves or to tackle difficult concepts, they look for mediators and they find what they are seeking in the form of religious personalities past and present, such that they spend more time visiting shrines than going to mosques.

In this type of religiosity, personalities are transformed into myths and lose touch with human history and geography. Our fathers and mothers wept for centuries for a Hussein who was assisted on Ashura by mysterious spirits and, under every stone they turned over on the day he was martyred, they discovered fresh blood. Not once did they ask about the rational or historical significance of his uprising and, centuries after the fall of the Umayyads and Abbasids, their pilgrimage invocations still called for vengeance against the culprits who murdered him.

Dogmatic distinctions drawn between us and them and believers and infidels, the firm and unyielding categorisation of people, the simplification of the world and the refusal to see the complexities, subtleties and variations of human existence, and, subsequently, engaging in unsubtle behaviour inappropriate to the elaborate and mysterious nature of life, creating strict ideological divisions, seeing people as either heavenly or hellish, viewing God as an impatient avenger, imagining God as one’s own God and the Protector of one’s own sect who is uncaring about everyone else, narrowing the definition of truth and broadening the definition of falsehood, highlighting the differences between sects and seeing one’s own sect as the axis and measure of truth and falsehood and the creator of the true human identity, ignoring the common attributes of human beings and emphasising every small difference in belief, and compartmentalising humanity into so many different sects are some of the characteristics and defining features of this kind of religiosity. But learned, pragmatic religiosity is itself of two types: this worldly and other worldly; and, of course, it has important differences with the pragmatic religiosity of the general masses. Here, the central axis is practical rationality, not emotion. And practical reason engages in planning and measures means against ends. But, whatever it does, it is practical and it wants religion for its utility. Since this-worldly, learned, pragmatic religiosity acts rationally, it has no affinity with myths, it does not blow the horn of emulation, it does not rouse blind emotion, it does not spare tradition the rod of criticism, it has no particular fondness for the clergy; nonetheless, and most importantly, it seeks movement rather than truth, which is precisely the main attribute of ideologies. It sees religion as the servant of politics or revolution or democracy, etc. And, concentrating on the ultimate goal or purpose, it tries to pick out what it finds useful in religion and to set aside anything in it that is of no use. The God of this kind of religiosity is an observing, supervising God who expects people to act responsibly. His servants are hardworking, shrewd, reward-minded and responsible employees. His Prophet is a prudent politician and a methodical planner. The other-worldly joy or wretchedness of his followers depend on their this-worldly joy or wretchedness. Its religious personalities are historical and non-mythical, and as subject to criticism and analysis as anyone else.

There is no element of wonder or secrets or the inner world in this type of religiosity. Seeing human beings, the world and history in simple, ideological terms remains the order of the day. The collective and demonstrative aspect of religion (apart from its ritualistic dimension) is firmly in place. Political, social, revolutionary or democratic religions are products of this kind of religiosity. Sin is like breaking the law and reward is synonymous with achieving the goal or reaching the desired destination. And obedience to the Prophet is like the shrewd obedience of an employee to a superior, not of a devoted follower to a master, nor of a lover to the beloved. The element of practical endeavour is still prominent, but here it is purposeful endeavour directed towards a this-worldly goal. Religious law and jurisprudence [fiqh] are justified in rationalistic terms. Morality, too, takes on a revolutionary or democratic sense and, ultimately, neither morality nor fiqh are seen as possessing any mysterious qualities or secret and hidden aims. Most modern religious intellectuals and reformers fall into this category and distinguished personalities such as Seyyed Jamal, Shariati, Seyyed Qutb and Ubdah are its prominent representatives in this century. Most clerics in all religions throughout history have fallen into the opposite category: other-worldly, learned, pragmatic believers. And their only difference with the pragmatic general masses is that what the masses obtain second hand, they obtain from the source.

And, in the words of Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi they are « well versed in the traditional sciences »(1) and brimming with historical accounts and narratives. Apart from this, their religiosity is no different from that of the masses in terms of its being causal, hereditary, dogmatic, ritualistic, collective, juristic, mythic and obedient. Their God and Prophet and devotion and sinfulness are also of the same variety. In fact, they are the ones who teach the masses their utilitarian religiosity.

Their morality is a religious (not rational) morality. And, in terms of knowledge, they are single-sourced. And their world is a world filled with hidden powers and mysterious acts of assistance and invisible hands. Among these believers, the performance of duty gains the upper hand over the pursuit of purposeful designs and shrewd policies. Most jurists and, in our times, such distinguished personalities as Ayatollahs Kho’i, Mar’ashi, Golpayegani and Borujerdi, and their followers, belong to this category.

Second: Gnostic religiosity

Describing the difference between the lover’s approach to God as opposed to the scholar’s, Hussein Bin Mansur Hallaj would say: « The Beloved is laden with allures, not secrets ». And with his unerring grace, Mowlana attributed both these qualities to the Benevolent reator and said:

The tongue speaks of its secrets and allures Or depicts the sky as its heavenly robes Robe? Every thread and fibre is made of gold, The more you cover it, the more it glows In gnostic religiosity, there is no talk of the allures of God and his prophets; that is the business of the experiential believer. Here, it is all a question of His secrets; not secrets in the sense of myths, but secrets as rational problems and puzzles that one must grapple with like a mental wrestler. Here one finds a theoretical rationality which is sensitive to the appropriateness of a reason to a claim, not just a practical rationality that is concerned about the appropriateness of a means to an end. If we identify pragmatic religiosity by its dogmatism, gnostic religiosity can be identified by a sense of rational wonder and, by the same token, experiential religiosity by certainty. Hence, on entering the realm of gnosticism, dogma is exchanged for doubt and wonder, and, as dogmatism is left behind, the road is paved for entering the realm of ertainty. Rationality always brings along two sturdy companions: one is the tireless raising of whys and wherefores and maybe sos and maybe nots, and the other is a relentless individuality. No rational thinker ever stops posing questions and destroying and rebuilding ceaselessly. And no two rational thinkers are ever the same. It is emotion that drowns people en masse and formlessly in a sea of excitation. This is not the domain of rationality. Rationality both allows its followers independence and individuality and endorses these qualities; it deems these attributes to belong to rational thinkers by right. In the pragmatic religiosity of the general masses, all believers practice their religiosity in the same manner, and their beliefs and actions are very similar. But, on stepping into the realm of gnosticism, individual religiosity and religious individualism enter in. Every rational thinker has their own conception of religion, that is, their own understanding of God, the Prophet, revelation, joy, wretchedness, sin and obedience; an understanding that belongs to that believer alone, results from their own reflections and is subjected to constant questioning and revision. This is why gnostic religiosity is unstable and in a state of flux. The religiosity of the masses has the stability of paralysis. This same kind of constancy and uniformity cannot be expected from gnostic religiosity. Rational storms will inevitably stir and rouse the ocean of religious belief and knowledge; swimming in these tempestuous waters represents the skill and excellence of and even life itself to the gnostic believer. All this examining, reexamining, rediscovering, doubting and pondering is the essence of worship to the gnostic, while sin would amount to submitting uncritically to beliefs, succumbing to popular vulgarities, following superstitions and famous personalities, and refusing to engage in doubt and reflection. And the believer’s joy lies in the excellence of his theoretical skills.

Theologians and exegisists are two of the prominent representatives of this category. This religiosity is reasoned (as opposed to causal), investigative, reflective, based on choice and free will, wondrous, theological, non-mythical, non-clerical, individualistic, critical, fluctuating and non-imitative.

Here God appears in the form of a great rational secret and, awed by His Splendour, His servants seek to unravel the secret. And the Prophet is like a great teacher and philosopher who has conveyed his lessons in the most intense form, while believers are like his students and novices who strive for a rational understanding of his words, and nonbelievers are like ungrateful pupils or like ignorant people who are incapable of even recognising their own ignorance. Thus the Prophet’s target is also perceived differently. Here, his target is believers’ minds, not their emotions. And believers become followers of his school to the extent that they can find rational fulfilment. The Prophet’s task is to teach and to pledge their betterment, not to demand and compel, and the believer’s task is rational- not physical or emotional – acceptance and submission.

There is no role for the clergy in this religiosity, since it is not founded on myths and rituals, and it has no place for emulation. It is on good terms with religious pluralism, because individual religiosity and religious individualism are synonymous with a plurality of conceptions and interpretations. It cannot be turned into an ideology because it has no time for dogmatism and official interpretations, or for simplistic views of the world, human beings and history. It is basically inclined towards the truth, not towards movement or an identity. Its particular form of worship is thought and one can enter into dialogue with its religious personalities without having to praise and revere them unquestioningly. It conceives of moral virtues as things that help the individual arrive at a better and more advanced understanding of error. It considers the worst forms of villainy to be dishonesty and duplicity and deception and pride and arrogance and mischievous cunning and pretentiousness and irrationality.

Gnostic believers are per force multi-sourced and their religious understanding recedes and advances in keeping with the contractions and expansions of their minds. This type of religiosity has been scorned by both pragmatic and experiential believers. When Shariati spoke of « philosophers as history’s fatheads », he revealed the nature of his own religiosity. Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi, for his part, likened the cunning displayed by theologians and gnostics to a diver’s derring-do under the sea that proves more dangerous than beneficial:

A cunning diver swims under the sea

He’ll not last long and will drown eventually

Love is like a ship for the fortunate few

Salvation is likely and the dangers are few

Ghazzali, too, scorned the science of theology and said that it led to pride, prevented people from struggling against their baser instincts, created the illusion of certainty while engendering doubt, and represented a contrived development that had not existed during the time of the Prophet (Revival of the Religious Sciences, first quarter, chapter on science).

The first two moral points must be resolved rigorously and diligently. The third point must be conceded and accepted, but it must not be seen as an ill or a vice because the oar of logic and reasoning cannot steer the mind to the shore of peace. There, waves and turbulence are the rule and calm the exception.

As to the fourth point, it calls for an explanation: the science of theology belongs to the age of consolidation, not to the time when religion was being founded and the age of the Prophet when the furnace of revelation was ablaze and when the presence of the Prophet’s glowing personality meant that there was no need for any theological mind to try to shed light on things or to grapple with problems. The age of the Prophet cannot be compared with other ages, nor can uniform rulings be made about the two. Theologians came on the scene in order to study the words of the Prophet with reverence for knowledge (rather than with servile reverence for any person), and to lay the foundations for exploring other-worldly teachings from a great distance, compelled by the separation in time and the needs and questions of a later age, proceeding on the basis of the reasoning and culture of their own time. They thus succeeded in nurturing the science of theology like an embryo in the womb and then entrusted it to future generations as the legitimate child of religious history. This has been the historical destiny of and the course taken by every religion; it is not the brainchild of heretics and deviationist. In gnostic religiosity, the more robust is the rope of criticism, the more narrow is the thread of servile reverence, and it is this very robustness and narrowness that provokes the sneers of the scornful. The main characteristic of this type of religiosity is that the personality of the leader is in abeyance and it is his teaching instead of his person that serves as the candle brightening the lives of believers. And, since the emphasis is on approaching that teaching through rationality and logic, the independence of the words from the speaker and the teaching from the teacher becomes clearer and more prominent. Here, reason assists the leader rather than the leader assisting reason. This is precisely something that neither pragmatic nor experiential believers like or tolerate, since they both lay rationality, humanity’s greatest blessing, like a sacrificial offering before the feet of the master and beloved: How can anyone speak of rationality while the Prophet is in the world?

Bow down and place rationality at the Prophet’s feet Say: God, I’m at Your Orders, Your Order is all I need Surrender rationality like an offering to a friend You’ll find endless rationality if you just gaze at heaven Gnostic religiosity, which is like a rational form of existence to the believer who has no motive or aim in discovering other than discovery, opens the way for the mind to discover independent, non-religious concepts. Hence, theologians must be seen as the first harbingers of the modern world among believers. Thus, although this type of investigative, probing, critical, learned, theological, non-sanctified, anti-mythical, pensive, argumentative, non-emulative, gnostic religiosity is not in keeping with the unwavering faith of the masses and the loving certainty of the few, it can, nonetheless, be seen as a respectable and independent kind of creed in its own right, for no type of religiosity is a measure of the truth or falsity of any other. This religiosity is a sapling that grows in a tremor-prone land. Those who are born in this terrain choose to make their homes here while others choose other, different ways. Fakhreddin Razi and Mohammad Hossein Tabataba’i can be identified as two of the distinguished champions of this realm.

Third: Experiential religiosity

When we come to experiential religiosity, we step from the domain of separation into the domain of union. The previous types of religiosity can be described as religiosities of distance, for the first was physical and practical and the second mental and reflective. The first was based on instrumental rationality and the second on theoretical rationality. One was after utility and the other after knowledge. But experiential religiosity is neither physical nor mental, neither instrumental nor theoretical; it seeks the evident and the manifest, and if gnostic religiosity is concerned with hearing, the experiential believer is concerned with seeing:

I’ve heard the inebriating melody of faith What I long for now is to see its face Experiential religiosity is passionate, revelatory, certain, individualistic, deterministic, quintessential, reconciliatory, ecstatic, intimate, visual, saintly, mystical and mysterious. Here, God is a graceful and alluring beloved. The Prophet is an ideal, a serene man and a model of successful religious experience. To follow him is to share his passions, to extend and repeat his experiences, and to be drawn into the magnetic force field of his personality. Sin is that which muddies, weakens or destroys the devotional link, the power of discovery and the state of union, and worship is that which feeds the flames of ecstasy. Heaven is the experience of union and hell the bitterness of separation. When the preacher spoke of the fear felt on Judgement Day He was depicting the terror the possibility of separation conveys The certainty that is unattainable in gnostic religiosity is picked like a fruit from the tree of experience here and the freewill that was seen as a virtue there now gives way to the passionate compulsion of love:

The ever-impatient lover, I intone my Destiny

And he who knows not love is trapped by destiny

And the teacher who was eclipsed by his teaching there, re-enters the scene here, casting light like a gleaming moon. In this religiosity, the plurality of experience and positive religious pluralism are matters of principle. Encountering the Exalted is a normal experience and religious individualism unavoidable. Here, instead of being the cause of the believer’s religious experience and excellence, rites and rituals are the effect of that excellence, that is, they follow and flow from the believer’s passionate devotion to God, instead of being an instrument for achieving it. Hence, ritualism and dedication to religious practices are not the central axis of this religiosity. In the words of Mowlana:

So many nights spent standing at the feet of the Prophet

Cloak shredded, hair dishevelled, feet distended

A quest for the absolution of sins past and present?

‘Tis the passion of love, not hope or fear, he retorted

Here, everything is personal: my religion, my experience, my beloved, my morality.

The link with the leader is what makes the religion. Whoever inflames and enlightens the believer is his leader and prophet. And the leader addresses the believer’s heart, not his mind or his emotions. The experiential believer’s morality, too, is the morality of love; it can, herefore, give way to disregard for good manners and correct behaviour, for the behaviour of love is the behaviour of the ill-mannered. This abandonment of good manners can go as far the abandonment of all formality and end up in « the audacities of the recluse », and the inebriety of devotion alters all sense and dignity:

The drunkenness felt in the presence of the King

You’ll not find in one hundred barrels, vats or casks

How can I behave dutifully then?

The steed has fallen, unable to perform the simplest tasks

The awesome mystery of the Truth enters the very being of the experiential believer like a mighty guest and renders him so stunned and silent that even his intonations and prayers take on a different form and content. And, although he gives the appearance of mingling with people, inside, he is enthralled by his own experiences, and, although he seems to use the same words as others do, he fills these vessels with different meanings.

The fruit of love is union and ecstasy, and the etiquette of love is secrecy, for God understands every language:

Of this, in truth, there’s many a tale to relate

But when the pen arrives here, it stops, it breaks.


1 This interpretation was directed by Mowlana Jalaleddin Rumi to Noah’s son who disobeyed his father, relied on his own swimming skills and knowledge, and subsequently drowned in the relentless storms and floods: « Would that he’d never acquired learning/ so that he’d have been driven onto Noah’s ship/or that he’d been less well versed in the traditional sciences/ and more enamoured by revelation instead »

Translated by Nilou Mobasser.