Spiritualism has been metaphorically considered to be a form of intoxication throughout history. As with any metaphor, this overshadows a large portion of what true spirituality actually entails. Many famous poets have referred to wine and drunkenness to express how one feels when in a spiritual state. Shouldn’t one feel beside oneself when in a state of spiritual wonder? Shouldn’t one feel intoxicated when they connect to the divine?
I remember volunteering for a group of students visiting the Shrine of Imam al- Rida (a) in Mashhad, Iran. The students had travelled from the United Kingdom just to visit this shrine. They were typical young English Muslims, using weird British slang (which took some time to get used to). Since they did not fit into the “ultra-religious/spiritual” box, I wondered what effect visiting the shrine would have on them.
The students put their heads down in deep thought as we rode the bus to the shrine for the very first time. To my astonishment, when we reached it and they alighted the bus with their eyes fixated on the golden dome, they started to weep. The visit turned out to be an incredibly strong emotional experience for the young boys and girls. Then, when we returned to the hotel, one of the students said that he felt as if he was on “a spiritual high.”
He used the term “high” to explain how he felt spiritually. Spirituality can be described as the strong feeling that one experiences when one connects to the divine. This intense experience creates a sense of extreme internal satisfaction which is compared, through similar metaphors, to the feeling that one experiences when he is intoxicated by wine, or even narcotics. It is a state of true consciousness.
This is not a modern metaphor. It has been used throughout history. Many poets have tried to express their feelings when they enter a state of spirituality. Such metaphors are found in the poems of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, popularly known as Rumi. Many of his poems mention wine and drunkenness, even though he, as a devout Muslim mystic, never drank any form of alcohol. Take the following poem as an example: “The God-Intoxicated are not sobered by old age, They remain beside themselves ‘’til the last trump.” (Rumi, 176)
Rumi uses phrases which support the metaphor “spirituality is intoxication.” First, he states “God-intoxicated.” This is a significant phrase because it tells the reader which “drug” intoxicated the characters of his story. The drug is God. Thus, becoming intoxicated with God produces an intense feeling which can-not be sobered, or depleted by old age. Becoming “sober” here means breaking the strong metaphysical connection that they have with the divine.
It is interesting that he also uses the phrase “They remain beside them-selves.” These points to the out-of-body experience that many claim to have experienced. The poet does not mean that they are literally souls outside of their bodies, watching themselves.
Many forms of narcotics produce hallucinogenic effects. One of these could be the imagined sensation of witnessing one’s body from outside. Furthermore, the sensation of “not being oneself” is common amongst intoxicated people. While intoxicated, when someone says or does something that he normally would not do, he usually apologises by saying that he “wasn’t himself” or “that was the whiskey talking.” (Rumi 18)
By stating that “they remain beside themselves,” Rumi tells us that they are not in their normal states; they are in a spiritual or elevated state, intoxicated with God. He also mentions that they will remain in this state “’til the last trump.” “The last trump” refers to the trumpet which will be blown on the Day of Judgment, summoning everyone to the court of the divine. Thus, he tells us that, unlike wine, the spiritual high does not wear off. Believers do not have to come down. They can remain in this elevated, spiritual state until the end of time.
Metaphors are useful linguistic tools. They allow us to express our opinions in an eloquent and imaginative way. But, just as a metaphor explains one aspect of a concept, it overshadows other aspects. Lakoff and Johnson explain this dimension of metaphors:
“The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another [e.g., comprehending an aspect of spirituality in terms of intoxication] will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept. In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept [e.g., the intoxicating aspects of spirituality], the metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.”
This metaphor is no exception. Defining spirituality as a form of intoxication only points to the mystical side of spirituality. It allows the concept of spirituality to become an abstract goal, but it overshadows another, more important aspect of spirituality. Unlike drinking or drug use, the goal of spirituality is not to feel all warm and fuzzy inside; it is not to become “beside oneself.” Rather, the connection to the divine is the goal. The sense of well-being, or the “high,” is a by-product of the divine connection, not the point of it.
When someone treats spirituality to be a form of intoxication, he will chase this high just as a drug addict chases the highs of cocaine or heroin. Just as the drug addict will do whatever is necessary to get high, this mystic will do whatever he can – even if it means disobeying the laws laid out by the divine – to achieve the high of spirituality. For instance, a Muslim once told me that he smokes marijuana in order to prepare himself for his nightly spiritual journeys. However, marijuana is prohibited by Islamic law. Hence, this person is disobeying the laws of one whom he perceives to be God in order to become spiritually connected to him. This is absurd.
Therefore, Islamic scholars, such as the poet Rumi, believe that there are stages to Islamic spirituality. The first stage is piety, which, in Islamic terms, is a state that a Muslim obtains when he sincerely intends to perform all religious obligations and observes all religious prohibitions. The Quran describes a spiritual journey whose provisions should be piety: “And take provision, for indeed the best provision is piety. So be pious towards Me, O’ you who possess intellects.” (2:197) The Islamic tradition holds that as long as one fails to reach this level of piety, he will be unable to benefit from the higher levels of spirituality that are mentioned in the poems of mystics such as Rumi.
Thus, although the metaphor of spirituality as intoxication has been used throughout history, it can be misleading for one who does not look at other dimensions of the lofty concept. If one does not look into these overshadowed dimensions, he can mistakenly perform actions which would sever his spiritual connection with the divine – the very connection he is trying to achieve. One must therefore take care in accepting the truth or value of metaphors because important dimensions of the concept are invariably overshadowed every time a metaphor is used.
Written by Shaykh Hamid Waqar
This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.