By Namit Arora
(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)
Muslims discovered Greek thought hundreds of years before the Western Christians, yet it was the latter who eventually domesticated it. Why did the reverse not happen? Why did the golden age of Islam (approx. 9th-12th centuries)—led by luminaries such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Alhazen, al-Beruni, Omar Khayyam, Avicenna, and Averroës—wither away? Despite a terrific start, why did Greek rationalism fail to ignite more widely in Islam? In this epilogue, I’ll survey some answers that have been offered by historians and highlight one that I hold the most significant.
Earlier in this series, we saw how three contending currents of thought dominated the Islamic golden age—orthodoxy, rationalism, and mysticism—based on three different ways of looking at the world. Orthodoxy in Islam looked to the Qur’an to justify a whole way of life. A universal, durable code of behavior and personal conduct is an understandable human craving, and so much more comforting when God Himself shows up and lays it out in one’s own language! Orthodoxy is by no means limited to ‘revealed’ religions; it took root in Hinduism via its castes, priests, and rituals. Suffice it to say that humans have been drawn to narrow and exclusive systems of belief with a dismaying alacrity.  The orthodox, it’s worth pointing out, are not all that otherworldly. The mullahs, bishops, and pundits are rarely disengaged from their social milieu, as the mystics tend to be. The orthodox may covet the rewards of the other world but what happens in their own—as in what norms, practices, dogmas, and rituals are followed—is profoundly important to them. They care deeply about this world and, in their own way, struggle to improve it, sometimes even waging war over it.
The mystics are rather different. They don’t care much for holy books or religious clerics, and receive God as a subjective experience, beyond the bounds of dogma. An essential mystical experience lies in the believer’s sobering realization of the inadequacy of reason in knowing God and his design. Love and devotion—even rapturous ecstasy—help bridge the enormous gulf he sees between him and God. Happiness comes not from material pleasures but from surrendering to the benevolent divine. He deals with existential angst by suppressing his self and ego. Mystical teachers across cultures have appealed to a non-dualistic approach to nature, in which everything in existence is not only interwoven but is a manifestation of the divine. Clearly, a mystical worldview does not engender ideas like competition, personal ambition, or democracy, nor does it preoccupy itself with theories of justice or science or critical inquiry. Instead, it eschews religious orthodoxy and furthers a tolerant, pacifist, and private faith, often alongside a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic detachment from the world.  Such otherworldly mysticism flowered in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Eastern Christianity, but barely so in Western Christianity.