Posts

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Sainsbury’s finest porridge, Doublemint gum, and more

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Podcasts

Drone Metal Mysticism

In this interview, Owen Coggins joins us to talk about the use of religious (and sacrilegious) language and imagery in Drone Metal, a genre which stretches metal to low, slow, repetitive extremes. Drawing on the work of Michel de Certeau, he tells David Robertson that the prevalence of language relating to mysticism and “spiritual experience” may be due to the genre’s focus on the physicality of the musical experience. Expanding out to discuss other forms of popular music which exhibit these modes of engagement, the conversation moves to consider how this case-study might open up new ways to engage with religious ideas in popular culture, and in other practices involving extreme states of bodily consciousness.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances conference in Milton Keynes, Feb 19-21 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Sainsbury’s finest porridge, Doublemint gum, and more

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Drone Metal Mysticism

Podcast with Owen Coggins (16 April 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Coggins – Drone Metal Mysticism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Sunny Milton Keynes for the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference where I’m lucky enough to be joined, today, by Owen Coggins, who is an Honorary Associate of the Religious Studies Department here.

Owen Coggins (OC): Hello

DR: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been talking about this interview for quite some time. But we’ve finally managed to get it organised – luckily, just as your book comes out! Let’s start, then with drone metal. What is it that we’re talking about here?

OC: OK. I guess I often describe it as an extreme form of heavy metal that’s characterised by extremes of repetition; distortion; extension; tracks that go on for thirty minutes or forty-five minutes – I went to a concert that was three hours long – and feedback and other kinds of sonic characteristics. But it’s also characterised in the sort of discourse that surrounds it that’s produced by musicians but also by audiences – lots of talk about mysticism and ritual and religious experience and transcendence and so on. And so that was the starting point for me wanting to investigate it for my PhD research.

DR: Now this isn’t the first kind of study we’ve had of religious imagery . . . . Well let’s start with metal, particularly. There’s a long history of fairly obvious religious imagery . . .

OC: Yes, and so I think from Black Sabbath – who are often understood as the originary starting point of heavy metal – and you’ve obviously got kind-of crucifixes and press photos taken in graveyards, and accusations about Satanism and various kind of imagined occult practices. And I think that a real interest in the power of religion and its symbols – and perhaps new or sometimes oppositional repositioning of that kind of symbolism, images and languages and even sounds – has, I think, been a really important part of metal from its beginnings. I think, perhaps what seems to me to be slightly different about this particular form – certainly in the way that academics have approached it – is that religion in metal has often been kind-of approached through the lens of Christianity and metal, whether that’s Christian heavy metal itself, or a discourse of anti-Christian sentiment in metal – burning down churches in Norwegian black metal, and so on – and more recently, sort-of more focus on various other sections of Satanism and paganism in metal. But it’s often kind-of approached in terms of a religious tradition and metal, whereas what I was really interested in is the sort of bricolage and sometimes kind-of orientalist appropriation and redeployment of a really vast range of different kinds of religious symbols and sounds, in this particular form of music.

DR: Now the use of religious imagery in metal, particularly – it’s a very deliberately transgressive kind of discourse. Although obviously it varies how serious they are. That’s not entirely what we find with drone, is it?

OC: I think the issue of seriousness is quite an interesting one. And I think humour in metal is often misunderstood as perhaps one optional counterpoint to seriousness. And so I think that’s an interesting way to look at these things. Because, in some ways, there are things which are done very, very seriously which are at the same time completely ludicrous and absurd. And one example is the classic 1996 record by Sleep which has two alternate titles: “Jerusalem” – which references these ideas of the Holy land, pilgrimage – and also “Dopesmoker”. So “Dopesmoker” and “Jerusalem” are two alternative titles for this one single, hour-long dirge classic of stoner metal riffs. And it’s often kind-of referenced by listeners in terms of the lyrics being simultaneously ultra-serious and completely ridiculous at the same time. And I think, that is an interesting way to think about how some of these symbols might be mobilised and ideas might be responded to, which in the book I talk a little bit about and the idea of “listening as if “. And I think, in some ways, drone metal allows . . . in the ways that audiences talk about it, are going to concerts or listening to recordings as if they are ritual, as if they are mystical, as if they are somehow related in an ambivalent way to religion. And that kind of language sometimes shifts around. So the record I mentioned is often described – even in the space of a short 500 word review for example – as like a pilgrimage, or as a pilgrimage, as a sonic pilgrimage, as sounding like the music that pilgrims might listen to at the end of the pilgrimage. And so I think this kind of ambivalence that I talk about as “listening as if” it’s ritualist, allows people to explore and investigate a kind of imagined religiosity without having to necessarily commit to certain kind of identity statements or dogmas or beliefs. And I think that’s part of where the power lies. And I think that also is part of the real value of music in this kind of exploration. Because it affords a sort of imaginative space for people to sort-of explore that.

DR: And that’s something that’s not unique to music, of course. That kind of mode is familiar in other forms of art that have got . . . there are visual artists and painters who specifically design their work to be experienced in these kind of contexts. You made a nice distinction in the book about different modes of engaging with . . . Certain kinds of music are engaged with in a different way and I think you’d distinguish like your pop and rock, the mainstream musical forms, that there’s a different register of engagement with it.

OC: Yes, I think that was really . . . I mean, I don’t really want to make big claims about the specialness of drone metal against other forms of music. But this was really responding to the ways that my research participants talked about it. And there was often a very . . . listeners often made a very strong distinction between drone metal and other forms of music. And often even drone metal and other forms of metal. Just in . . . partly because of the sort-of abstract nature of this very droning dirge-like music and the practicalities, such as how long the tracks last. The real interest in vinyl as kind-of recreating a separate space and time in which to listen. Often people preferred to listen on vinyl rather than digital formats because it created a certain kind of special space and time through which to listen. And I think that really spoke to the construction of ideas about ritual and mysticism: that there was a deliberate attempt to separate drone metal in space and time, but also conceptually as something kind-of set apart. And obviously, there’s an implied construction of the sacred in there.

DR: Yes, that notion of specialness is something that I’ve actually come across in a few places. And it’s quite interesting when you . . . even for students talking about the study of religion – they want it to be something a bit set apart. Even the discourse itself is something separate. Yes, I like that you mentioned the material culture, and there’s a number of interesting intersections here. I mean the vinyl aspect of it is one we’ve already talked about, but there’s also, you know, a particular aesthetic that goes along with particularly drone metal. But we also have material culture in terms of sensory experience.

OC: Yes, and I think, firstly, it was great to speak to people about this certainly quite extreme form of music, and read thousands of reviews and things, just because of the creative and unusual ways that people talked about it. And that was one of the ways that came up a lot was people talking about going to concerts and the air becoming solid, or having a real, physical bodily experience of the sound. And so I thought material culture was actually a really helpful way to think about that. Because it was almost like sound becoming physically mobilised for people, or them kind of engaging with sound in a very physical way. And I think that was an interesting way to think also about mysticism in terms of the ways that people kind-of use, or interpret, or operate on a particular kind of tradition – in this case heavy metal, I suppose, as well as the surrounding discourses about transcendental experience and mysticism and so on – that it was almost a kind of a way to experience sound as sound, or what sound itself sounds like, or what sound itself “feels” like, as some participants put it. Which, I think, connects up to other aspects of the aesthetic in other quite interesting ways, such as the interest with black letter or Fraktur typography, like the sort of gothic script that’s familiar in a lot of metal cultures as well as drone metal. And what I loved about that was it’s a real visual manifestation of the distortion and amplification of a sign that’s so important in the sonic characteristics of the music.

DR: I found that really interesting: the idea of the sort-of fetishisation of amplification. That is noticeably different than most other forms, even mainstream rock and metal where there’s much more concern on the drum kit or the guitars, rather than in drone where it’s the amplification particularly. And what I found interesting, having been a rock musician, was that when you started talking about this, I was thinking, “Well the first stage of amplification you need in rock is that you have to be louder than the drums. Because you have to play the drums loud to make them sound good! So there’s a level of amplification you need, to get your guitar to there, for your band to sound like a rock band, right? But in drone, that bit becomes the bit that’s of interest. And you go up a whole other level, so that it’s the amplification itself that becomes the act. It’s no longer something that you’re doing in order to get to point A, it becomes point A itself.

OC: Yes, I think I’ve suggested that this is the first or, at least, the only musical culture that I know of where the most important musical instrument, broadly conceived, is the amplifier rather than the guitar or, as you say, anything else that’s being amplified. Although, interestingly, there is a real focus on amplification and speakers in dub reggae and certain forms of electronic dance music, which I also discuss. Because those forms of music have also attracted really quite sort-of prevalent discourses of religious experience and mysticism. But yes, definitely, the amplification . . . sort-of amplification of amplification is the thing that’s really at issue. And I think that’s an interesting way to think about that is that it’s about an interrogation of transmission itself. And amplifying kind-of symbols themselves in order to kind of investigate what their possibilities are rather than, for example, to kind-of communicate particular kinds of musical semantics or structures.

DG: Yes, you mentioned dance music- I immediately pictured the front of “3am Eternal”, by The KLF, where it’s an altar and the sides of the altar are huge amplifiers. Of course The KLF were enormously influenced by situationist theory and the kind of post-hippy, kind-of early cybernetic idealism – you know, Tim Leary and those people. And they were very sort-of consciously creating a temporary autonomous zone. But they were using a lot of religious imagery in doing it. Even the idea of time, you know – so it’s 3am, but it’s 3am eternal. They have a lot of these similar kind-of languages.

OC: And I think that the idea of drone itself is very much about . . . or it affords ways of talking about time which kind-of do similar things. They’re physically and bodily experienced in a particular moment, but they open out onto those kind-of ideas about archaic experience and forms of social organisation. And so, in one of the chapters of the book I talk about those: the ways that audiences talk about drone metal being kind of about elsewhere, and drone metal being given access to these elsewheres. People discuss being transported to outer space or to kind-of imagined empty deserts and so on. And I think that’s a really powerful and important way that people respond to it. Not to say that there’s anything inherently connected in the music, but just that those are conventional ways of talking about the music which have sprung up around it, which seem to have a certain validity for people who are communicating about their engagement in this music.

DR: Nonetheless, I found that really interesting. And we really are thinking about utopias – in the original sense of the word – of nowhere, of places that are idealisations or imagined spaces, in some sense, that there’s almost an attempt to achieve through these kind of trancian and drone ideas.

OC: Yes, and I think in dub, and psy-trance, and in drone metal which, as I said, there are different kinds of utopias. And I think you can also, working backwards from there, think about the reasons why there’s such a strong impulse to try and construct these utopias in a very kind of temporary way – just over the course of half an hour recording, or an hour or so of a live concert. So, for example, for dub, in terms of a black Atlantic diaspora wanting to kind-of construct certain ideas about an Afro-centric religion, for example. And I think, perhaps, for drone metal it’s interesting to speculate about what the construction of utopias might say about the social situation of audiences . . . as a response to alienation and disenchantment.

DR: And interestingly as well, almost pre-modern – despite the fetishisation of technology. There’s a lot of wildernesses and distant places. It’s almost away from modernity.

OC: Yes, there was an interesting example when one of the best-known drone metal bands, Sunn O))), performed at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago. The support act was a group from Russia called Phurpa who’ve supported Sunn O))) on a number of occasions, who style themselves as supporting authentic Bon Tibetan traditional chanting. And so when you see these two things juxtaposed, the Tibetan Bon ritual – where there’s bowls of incense and figures in black robes doing vocal chanting – and then you go out and have your glass of wine at the break time and then you go back and there’s a very similar performance with the Sunn O))) band members in their black robes . . . . But it’s a very kind-of consciously up-dated version of this, with these extremes of amplification, but sonically quite a similar palette, I suppose, they’re working with. And I think that’s a very deliberate association that they’re trying to make with a certain kind of imagined archaic ritual.

DR: Let me give you a deliberately provocative question. So we’ve got a kind-of sense of sacredness or specialness, or temporary autonomous zone – however we want to put it – and we have quasi-religious musical forms: which comes first? You know, in which direction is the movement? Or is it mutually reinforced?

OC: Yes, I think it’s a good question and it’s one that I’ve tried very hard to skip!

DR: (Laughs) I said it was deliberately provocative.

OC: But in order to skip it, to focus instead on trying to . . . . Put it this way, there was a lot of claims about – in my interviews and in reviews about this sort of music – that drone metal really does hark back to ancient – in quotes – “tribal religious forms”, and so on. And I think this is kind-of deliberately played-on by some musicians. And it’s certainly picked-up-on by parts of the audience. But my interest wasn’t so much kind-of proving or disproving whether this really, genuinely had ancient connections to these kind of religions. And in the same way that the group performing the Tibetan ritual music that I mentioned – I’m not so interested in the historical accuracy of their early music production. What’s more interesting to me is how those ideas are mobilised, and why people find them important, and to draw on that. And I think, in part, it’s to make an authority claim. Or to recognise and, after the fact, legitimate something that they felt was quite a powerful engagement. And then, in order to kind of situate that for themselves and the listening community, to sort of connect it to these older imagined forms.

DR: Tell us, then, about how this relates to mysticism – and this is a large part of the book, obviously. I mean, I presume we’re building from the kind-of idea that this is music which is deliberately experienced rather than passively heard?

OC: Yes. So, following on from what we’ve been discussing, there’s also quite a strong discourse of perennialism that you find in Aldous Huxley and so on, in the way that people talk about it – that it’s accessing this kind-of universal underlying form of religious experience. Now that, to me . . . there are some troubling consequences of that idea, that just erases all specific differences. And there are some issues with a kind of orientalist grabbing of bits and pieces from all religions and kind of presenting them as if they were referring to a similar thing. So, for me, what was really valuable in trying to understand these kind of discourses of mysticism and ritual – given that so many people who are coming from different kind of backgrounds and so on are using words that are notoriously difficult to pin down, such as “it was a spiritual experience”, or “this music is mystical” in some way – for me, it was really valuable to look to the work of Michel de Certeau. He both kind-of provides a really valuable way to look at the uses that audiences make of texts in popular culture, and also his work on mysticism. And so this approach to mysticism: instead of trying to look behind the texts for this unitive experience, which the scholar imagines is the same behind all of these instantiations, Michel de Certeau, by contrast, wants to look at the texts which are designated mystical and then identify certain procedures, or gestures, or operations on an inherited language that take place in these texts. So, for me, that was really valuable – for a start because it kind of resolves, or displaces, a kind of division between text and experience which has been quite influential – and quite problematically so, in my view – in the 20th century study of mysticism, where mystical experiences are “ineffable”, they’re “indescribable” and then you have texts which sort-of fail nobly to describe them. So the problem with that is that the experience that’s suggested as being the same – there’s not really any evidence for that. And then the actual kinds of differences in texts are just attributed to the cultural differences in which these same experiences take place. Michel de Certeau, by contrast, allows us to look at the particular mechanics and moves and gestures that take place in these texts. So, for example, talking about how a language of the body emerges in the mystical texts – or texts designated mystical in the 16th or 17th centuries – how they’re interested in the materiality of signifiers. And how mystics are seen by themselves as ultra-orthodox, but by outsiders as heretical in some way, for their treatment of their inherited tradition. And so I think there was a number of these kind-of gestures that de Certeau identified in mystical texts, that I also observed in not only the ways that audiences spoke about their engagement with drone metal, but also in the sound itself. So we had similar . . . in the ways that people talked about going to concerts, you find these very similar and familiar gestures of talking about mysticism and ritual. But I also thought it was quite a good description of what drone metal does to the tradition of heavy metal. So it, for example, takes on lots of signifiers from Black Sabbath but kind-of over-extends them, and pushes them to their breaking point. So, for example, the Sleep album I mentioned earlier was described memorably by Julian Cope in a review, as if a bunch of California teenagers had found Black Sabbath’s first four albums in the desert and started a religion, based on it.

DR: I love that, yes.

OC: And so you can see that just even in the sound. It’s almost like taking a Black Sabbath song and extending it for an hour – sort-of almost pushing it to its limits. And I think this almost fits with de Certeau’s idea of mysticism as an operation, or a performance, in a text which does something to an inherited tradition.

DR: So using drone metal, then, are you using it . . . . You’re not so much using it as an example of mysticism, but as an example of how the language of mysticism is operated. Am I understanding . . ?

OC: Yes.

DR: And does that have ramifications for other . . . like, more widely for how we talk and think about mysticism?

OC: Yes, I think so. I think that it helps to avoid some of the pitfalls of mysticism which it has – as we’ve described before – about conjuring this sort-of fiction of an essentialist, universalist experience, which actually relies on particular ideas about subjectivity which are rooted in a Western academic episteme, I suppose. And I think that’s particularly important in our contemporary political moment where we hear references to the 20th century study of mysticism growingly in political discourse. So, for example, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer making mention of Julius Evola. And that’s a very, very problematic imagination or depiction or mobilisation of ideas about mysticism: Evola kind-of wanting to forward – as he described it – “a racism of body souls and spirit”, and his sort-of involvement in the school of Fascist mysticism. So I think these ideas can certainly be taken in some very troubling ways. And I think, at root, they’re often based on a kind of essentialism and universalism which can be found in relatively benign forms in ideas of Huxley and Eliade and others. But I think de Certeau gives a much more both ethically and epistemologically-grounded way of approaching mysticism. In addition to saying, “If we look at the mechanics of what happens in the texts which are called mystical, then that’s actually a much more empirically-based way to look at mysticism than kind-of imagining these kind-of supposedly pure visionary experiences.”

DR: Great. So what’s next for you? Where do you take this next?

OC: Good question. I’m really interested in – as I start to talk about in the final chapter – how this kind-of relates to anthropological ideas about ritual, and how that might be connected to ideas about the connection between music and various forms of social structure and imagining social structure. So Jacques Attali’s ideas about noise, for example, which I think, given that this form of music is very much about distortion and feedback and noise, I think there’s maybe some interesting connections that can be made with ideas; Mary Douglas, for example, about the importance of dirt and the positioning of those things in ritual. I’m also really interested in wading into debates about heavy metal and mental health. And it’s often been associated with delinquency, both in popular media moral panics, as well as a certain kind of academic literature.

DR: Except, in fact, heavy metal fans are statistically happier and healthier than the norm, I believe – according to a recent survey!

OC: Yes, well I think you’ve got to take all of these things with a pinch of salt. I think that’s perhaps why it’s so interesting. Because I think the debate is so polarised. But I’d actually kind-of want to make room for the fact that maybe some kinds of music can be good for you, and other kinds of music can be bad for you, and maybe the debate’s a bit more nuanced and complex than some of these polemic positions have suggested.

DR: We love nuance, here at the Religious Studies Project, so thank you for taking part!

OC: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been very interesting.

DR: And before we go, I just want to remind the listener to rock hard, rock heavy and rock lobster!

.Citation Info: Coggins, Owen and David G. Robertson. 2018. “’Drone Metal Mysticism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drone-metal-mysticism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

IMG_1422-1Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

It’s the Fruits, not the Roots: A Response to Ralph Hood

By Joshua James, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ralph Hood on Mysticism (20 May 2013)

When I began outlining my response to this interview—which is an intriguing psychological look at mystical experience through the filter of one of the most insightful minds dealing with the subject today—I wanted to remain as objective as possible and remove the influence of my personal experience. I found it nearly impossible. One method for addressing the intersection between lived experience and academia is through reflexivity.  In the article, “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: the Value of Reflexivity,” by Diane Watt, the author notes the importance of juxtaposing one’s self in relation to their research interest. By the researcher or author stating their worldview (or in some cases bias) the reader has a better understanding of not only the structure of inquiry but also the interpretive frame of the author’s position. In the case of Watt (2007), her experience as a school teacher informed her paradigm of inquiry.

Watt’s argument for reflexivity relaxed my reluctance. Watt kept a journal of her experience and combined her reflexive exploration with quantitative research to construct an academic product with multiple layers of depth in inquiry both in terms her research interests and in self-reflection of perceptions in analysis. Watt found her journal quite helpful: “Through the writing process, I was able to excavate memories of my own classroom practice.” I realized that when I listened to the interview with Ralph Hood, that I had “excavated” memories of my own. Thus I decided that not only would including my first-hand experience be helpful to my argument, it would be ill-advised not to include it, possibly even irresponsible.  This paper is written in relation to my own reflexive experience of understanding mysticism and the profound themes posed by Dr. Ralph Hood’s podcast.

When I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a text to which Dr. Ralph Hood refers liberally, I strongly connected with an account given by an agnostic man during a lecture entitled “The Reality of the Unseen.” James identifies him only as “a scientific man of my acquaintance.” A portion of the account follows:

Between twenty and thirty I gradually became more agnostic and irreligious, yet I cannot say that I ever lost that ‘indefinite consciousness’ which Herbert Spencer describes so well, of an Absolute Reality behind phenomena…I had ceased my childish prayers to God, and never prayed to It in a formal manner, yet my more recent experience show me to have been in a relation to It which practically was the same thing as prayer…I know now that it was a personal relation I was in to it, because of late years the power of communicating with it has left me, and I am conscious of a perfectly definite loss.[1]

While at the time of the writing, James’ acquaintance was over twenty years older than the age I am now, his early experience virtually mirrors my own.

I’m a skeptic. However, like the man to whom I refer above, I have, rarely, turned to prayer in times of desperation, and I have always had a sense that there was someone else involved with the world; someone to whom I owed thanks for undeserved good fortune, someone who heard my thoughts, someone who compelled me to feel guilty or embarrassed even when no human could possibly have known the mistake I made. I have had, in spite of my agnosticism, an experience that could be classified as a “mystical experience,” the details of which I shall not go into, but I did experience a degree of transcendence in the sense that I lost emotional control and it seemed as if someone else had this control. It occurred during a period of temporary desperation which prompted me to pray to whom I do not know for the first time since my childhood (which was spent in a Pentecostal church).

Hood makes clear in this interview that what he is interested in, with regard to spiritual experience, is the interpretation of an experience rather than the cause of an experience. That is to say that regardless if one’s spiritual experience occurs during prayer, deep self-reflection, or after swallowing a couple hits of blotter acid, the consequences and interpretation of the experience, usually involving a transcendence or “loss of self,” validates the experience. Hood’s approach has no flaws from the standpoint of an observing scientist; but, on the personal level, one may have trouble distinguishing between the cause and the consequence.

I will refer to my own experience to demonstrate my point. I could interpret my experience as evidence, or even proof, for the more fundamentally-minded reader, of the existence of God, and as confirmation of the validity of the scripture. It could have been the reassurance I had been looking for to readopt my faith.

But because I understand, or more appropriately, believe I understand the cause, my interpretation is different. I neither pretend to be an expert in the field of psychology nor do I deny that the human brain is still a mystery to those who are, but I know enough to know that the brain is powerful. And to know that suggestion is powerful. Therefore, given that I was in a state of desperation and asking an invisible, unknowable presence for a mercy of which I felt unworthy, my brain created the experience. My complexly constructed brain used overtly simple logic to rationalize a scenario where something special had happened to me: I asked someone—and I deeply hoped this someone existed—for something and I had received it, therefore that someone must have given it to me. Furthermore, as I previously stated, I felt undeserving of the mercy I received. Because I felt undeserving, it was natural to feel gratitude, and I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous when I suggest that it is the nature of human mentality to focus our gratitude or blame, anger or affection onto a person, or Supreme Being in this instance.

Make no mistake, Hood’s argument is not lost on me, neither do I disagree with it. Hood would likely argue that whether I had chosen to view the experience as faith-affirming or to view it in terms of Freudian reductionism, the experience occurred and I had interpreted it, therefore the experience is validated. The very fact that it happened makes it real, regardless of its roots. I am simply arguing that the roots are sometimes related to the “fruits,” as William James calls them.

Hood’s approach holds so long as we reject the possibility of objective truth. Take, for instance, the example given in the interview regarding psychedelic drugs. Hood argues that the experience should not be dismissed simply because it was caused by synthetic means, that is to say, only the cause is synthetic, the consequence is very much natural and real. On the one hand, if, while on an acid trip, one realizes through a transcendent experience that he or she has become angry and short-tempered recently, and as a result modifies his or her behavior, then the roots of the experience should not nullify the lesson learned. On the other hand, if, while on an acid trip one has, through a transcendent experience, become convinced whole-heartedly of the existence of God, then the validity could be called into question. Hood would argue that if one arrives at this conclusion through mystical experience, it should not be dismissed simply because the cause was hallucinogenic drugs rather than prayer. To his point, if one gained this same certainty through experience caused by other means, I would lend it no more validity; but, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the cause from the consequence.

Despite the rejection of my childhood religion, I have always wanted for the supernatural world of heaven and spirits to exist. The fact I want to believe only adds to my skepticism; I wish there was a heaven, therefore it becomes easier to convince me it is so, and thus I remain wary. If you have ever watched an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Syfy network and seen how disappointed people appear when they discover that their house is not haunted, then you understand what I mean. People would rather be in danger than be wrong, and we would choose almost anything over being alone and insignificant. If we have a heaven, or even a suggestion that there is something after death, say a spiritual experience, then we do not have to fear the loneliness of death. For centuries, the West believed unquestioningly that God created the Earth and all the plants and creatures specifically for us and that it was the center of the entire universe. This arrogant insistence upon being special has been deeply embedded in our collective unconscious for some time. The discoveries made along the road to the present were increasingly more difficult to deal with until we finally became the most dominant animal on one of many billions of rocks in a universe too big for us to even begin to measure. It is no surprise we want to believe. Thus even today any experience of some transcendence must be interpreted as special conversation between the individual and God himself, or whatever entity or realm in which one believes.

For Hood, my cynical interpretation only proves his point: the consequence of the experience is all that matters; the religious among us will interpret it religiously, and the non-religious among us will interpret it non-religiously. A spiritual world exists because people continue to experience it. It is a post-modern and pragmatic philosophy, and it serves him well. Take Hood’s and Paul Williamson’s work with the Lazarus Project for example. The addicts replace the drug experience with a spiritual experience, and if it benefits them, who could question its validity. And of course, if someone manages to reveal the spiritual world to be an objective part of the natural world, it will undoubtedly be discovered through the mythological agnostic approach used by scientists like Ralph Hood who refused to be limited by presumptions.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

IMG_1422-1Joshua James is in graduate school at Henderson State, Master of Liberal Arts with an emphasis in social science in progress. He received his B.A., major in History from Henderson also, and has worked in the restaurant business for years. Recently he has become passionate about writing and just this semester has taken an interest in journalism, something I never attempted as an undergrad.

References

  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Penquin, 1982.
  • Watt, Diane. “On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity.” The Qualitative Report. 12 (2007): 82-101.

[1] William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 64-5.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.