Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

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MYSTICAL UNION IN JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND ISLAM . To describe the nature of mystical union in the three monotheistic faiths is a task fraught with difficulties and ambiguities both conceptual and real. First, the term unio mystica is primarily a modern expression; though the phrase does occur in Christian mysticism, its appearance is relatively rare. Various words for and descriptions of union or uniting with God, however, are important in the history of Christian mysticism, and accounts of union with God are also prominent in Judaism and Islam. Second, even the term mysticism itself, another modern creation, has come under attack. To what extent, for example, does the use of a term created in the modern Christian West distort the meaning of key figures, movements, and texts from the traditions of Judaism and Islam? The question is a real one, but the position adopted here is that, if mysticism is understood broadly as the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect engendered by what mystics describe as a direct and immediate transformative contact with the divine presence, then it is useful to speak of a strong mystical element in each of the three faiths. Third, if one allows that mysticism is a helpful term in the study of religion, is mystical union to be conceived of as its essence? Though some investigators have so claimed, the study of mystical traditions indicates that the language of union is only one of the linguistic strategies used by mystics to try to describe, or at least to point to, what they contend is the ultimately ineffable nature of their contact with God. Unitive mysticism is one of a group of interactive and nonexclusive semantic fields found in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are mystics in each tradition who either explicitly avoid union language (e.g., Augustine of Hippo) or else who tend to relegate such language to the margin in favor of other modes of mystical expression, such as those related to the vision of God or to theurgical action in the divine realm.

Characteristics of Unitive Mysticism

Treatments of mystical union have often employed the terms pantheism and monism to characterize unitive expressions, but pantheism and monism are not adequate categories for discerning the import of unitive language. God is certainly all things in the monotheistic faiths, in the sense that the world is a manifestation of God; but God is also transcendentally more than the world, so the simple identification between God and world implied in pantheism is not an accurate term. Monism, understood as the belief that there is one basic principle underlying all reality, is true of most forms of mysticism of the monotheistic religions (though not of Qabbalah). But monism tells little more than this and hence is an empty category for serious investigation of mysticism.

Previous scholarship on mysticism often employed oppositional terminology, such as impersonal versus personal union, absorptive versus nonabsorptive union, habitual versus ecstatic union, essential union versus intentional union, and the like. Such typologizing, however, should not be applied in any crude way, as if mystics could easily be pigeonholed into one or the other category. The comparative dimensions of mystical union emerge from attention to some of the profound issues at work in unitive texts. The persistence across traditions of particular doctrinal and ethical issues concerning union and the employment of certain distinctive forms of language to describe unitive states points to a fruitful realm of comparative dynamics.

Among these issues is the question of what kinds of language are used to present union. Rather than being easily classifiable by opposed types, most mystical texts feature an oscillation and interaction between two poles that need not be seen as expressing opposition. On the one hand, there is what can be called mystical uniting, that is, an intentional union of God and human that emphasizes the ongoing distinction of the two; on the other hand, there is a deeper union understood as mystical identity, expressing indistinction between God and human, at least at some level of reality. The pole of mystical uniting is more common and doctrinally more acceptable; the pole of mystical identity is daring and debatable, yet many noted mystics in all three faiths have insisted that indistinction is the ultimate goal of the journey to God. Whereas some mystics tend to use only one of these forms of language, many use formulations that reflect subtle variations in the range of expressions between both ways of presenting the divine-human conjunction.

Mystics make use of a variety of images and symbols, as well as distinctive expressions and forms of technical discourse, in their attempts to suggest through language what lies beyond language. Images of erotic lovethe kiss, the embrace, the memory of encounter, even sexual intercourseare favored ways of expressing mystical union. Three images for mixing substances that originated in ancient philosophical writings are also popular among the mystics: the drop of water in a vat of wine, the bar of iron in fire, and air illuminated by the sun. Some images lend themselves more aptly to symbolizing the absorption that leads to mystical identity, such as the ocean, the desert, the mirror, the abyss, cloud and darkness, and the identical eye (Meister Eckhart: "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me"). Another powerful image for absorption is eating and being eaten. There are also distinctive linguistic expressions and strategies found across the three traditions: ecstatic identity pronouncements (especially in Islam); forms of dialectical language expressing fusion and indistinction; the language of the return to the pre-creational state; and reduplication discourses, often involving referential ambiguity, especially in dealing with pronouns signifying God and the human.

Intimately allied with the difference between mystical uniting and mystical identity is the issue of annihilation. Many mystics have insisted that union-identity can only be found through annihilation of the self, but the meaning of annihilation is complex and open to a host of questions. What self is being annihilated: the created self or also a deeper, pre-creational self found in God? Is the ego annihilation total and final or only in certain respects and for particular times and circumstances? Finally, is the annihilation in some way a mutual one in which both God and human lose themselves in some deeper reality? Annihilation is not a simple or univocal category but is, rather, analogical, dialogical, and paradoxical. Furthermore when annihilation language is used in texts that stress mystical identity, it is often accompanied by strategies of qualification that must be taken into account to get the full measure of the meaning of annihilation. Some of these strategies are dialectical in the sense that they insist on the coexistence of indistinction and distinction in the relation between God and humanfrom one perspective union is total identity; from another, it coexists with an ongoing real difference between the two. Other qualifications are more perspectival, claiming that annihilation is essentially a matter of the consciousness of the mystic and not the structures of reality themselves.

In the monotheistic faiths the God of creation, revelation, and redemption is not a static and indifferent First Principle but a loving and all-knowing God, who creates humans whose likeness to him consists precisely in their ability to know and to love. The various ways of expressing mystical union are intimately connected with the relation between knowing and loving, both in the path to union and in its realization. Here too important comparative issues arise. Most mystics claim that both knowing and loving are necessary in the way to God, but many mystics stress the superiority of love, often expressed in highly erotic ways, whereas others conceive of union as attaining mental identity with the Divine Intellect. In unitive states some mystics contend that one reaches a higher divine way of knowing (gnōsis ); other mystics see all loving and knowing, at least as most people conceive them, as abrogated when union or identity is attained. The variations found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on this essential problematic are too multiple to be easily characterized, but it is difficult to appreciate the dynamics of union unless one addresses the relation between unitive expressions and the roles of love and knowledge.

Among the other persistent issues concerning the comparative dimensions of mystical union is that of the ethical implications of claims of having attained union-identity with God. If mystics think they have become in some sense one with God, what does this mean for their behavior and their relation to the wider community of faith? Does this indicate, for instance, that the ordinary religious practices, and perhaps even the moral code, no longer are binding on mystics? In both Christianity and Islam mystics, especially those who claimed identity with God, have been suspected of holding such views. These mystics were at times subject to persecution, imprisonment, and even death, as shown by the examples of al-allāj and ʿAyn al-Quāt al-Hamadhānī in Islam and Marguerite Porete, Meister Eckhart, and Miguel de Molinos in Christianity. Do these incidents prove that there is always an inherent challenge to institutional and dogmatic religion in the mystical impetus to become one with God? Some have argued this case, but a careful study of even the strongest claims for mystical identity with God across the three traditions demonstrates that few mystics have consciously adopted an antinomian stance or broken with the common religious practices and institutional claims of their tradition, however much they may have come to see these as secondary. There seems to be no inherent conflict between unitive claims and common religious and ethical practice as long as the mystic sees both faith and union as coming from the same divine source.

In a brief essay it is not possible to pursue these issues across the three monotheistic faiths. What follows is a sketch of some of the major unitive mystics in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, designed to provide a road map for those who wish to investigate unitive mysticism further. Because the language of mysticism and mystical union arose in Christianity, this article looks at Christian expressions first. Strong forms of unitive mysticism appeared as early as the second century of Islam (eighth century ce). Although Judaism was deeply influential on the origins of both Christianity and Islam, because unitive language emerged in Jewish mysticism relatively late, it will be treated last.

Union in Christian Mysticism

The Greek qualifier mustikos is derived from the verb muein, meaning "to close the mouth or eyes." Ancient writers used the term in the sense of something hidden, as in the case of the mystery cults, but from the second century ce Christians adopted mustikos to signify the inner realities of their beliefs and practices. The word was most often used to describe the hidden spiritual meaning of the Bible, but it was also employed in speaking of the Sacraments and of the vision of God (thēoria mustikē ). Around the year 500 ce Pseudo-Dionysius coined the term theologia mustikē to indicate the knowledge (or better, superknowledge) by which mystics attain God. The earliest uses of the term mystical union (sunousia mustikē, koinōnia mustikē ) are found in the Spiritual Homilies ascribed to the Egyptian monk Macarius but actually written in Messalian circles in Syria in the late fourth century ce (see Hom. 10.2, 15.2, and 47.17). Pseudo-Dionysius was the first to use the term henōsis mustikē (Divine Names 2.9). The Latin translators of the Dionysian corpus employed various terms for Dionysius's henōsis, but use of unio mystica was rare, despite the many discussions of union found in the medieval and early modern periods. The term did emerge in some of the textbooks on mysticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (e.g., L. Blosius and M. Sandaeus).

Mystical union in Christianity to 1200

If the term mystical union is rare, the reality of union with God is old in Christianity. The earliest Christian mystical system, that found in the Alexandrian exegete Origen (d. 254 ce), already displays a rich teaching on the union between the loving soul and the Incarnate Logos, especially as found in the spiritual reading of the Song of Songs. Commenting on Song of Songs 2:1013, Origen says, "For the Word of God would not otherwise say that the soul was his neighbor, did he not join himself to her and become one spirit with her." Here Origen is referencing a text from Paul (1 Cor. 6:17: "Whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him"), a passage that became the leitmotif for those forms of Christian mysticism that emphasize mystical uniting. For Origen and others, the soul burning with love for Christ is divinized by grace to enjoy a union of loving conformity with the Logos that introduces it to the delights of "mystical and ineffable contemplation."

Origen's younger contemporary, the pagan philosopher and creator of Neoplatonism Plotinus (d. 270 ce), had a powerful effect on later mysticism in all three traditions. Many of the characteristic ways in which mystics sought to present identity with God are already found in the passages where Plotinus talks about the soul attaining henōsis, first with the Supreme Intellect (nous), where some duality still remains, and finally with the ultimate and unknowable One (to hen ). Throughout his Enneads, but especially in Ennead 6.9, Plotinus explores with unrivaled subtlety and deep personal concern how the soul must lose or annihilate its present identity to find a transcendent self in the One. "When it [the soul] is not anything else, it is nothing but itself. Yet, when it is itself alone and not in a being, it is in That [the One]" (Ennead 6.9.11). Plotinus's view of mystical union is fundamentally dialectical. The One always is the soul in a transcendental sense, but because the One is also always more than the soul, the two can never be totally identified in an absolute way. Plotinus's apophatic treatment of the First Principle and his dialectical notion of union were developed by later Neoplatonists, such as Proclus (d. 485 ce), whose philosophy also had an impact on Christian and Islamic mysticism.

Forms of language that explore the possibility of attaining identity with God, especially God conceived of as one and three in the dynamic relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, begin to appear in Christianity in the late fourth century ce in the writings of Evagrius (d. 399 ce), a learned Origenist who became a desert monk. With Evagrius one finds a variety of forms of language, images, and metaphors, both for loving union with God and for merging into identity with the Trinity. Evagrius appears to be the first Christian to use one of the favored metaphors for mystical identity, that of rivers returning to the sea. In speaking of how created minds return to the Trinity to attain their pre-creational state, he says: "When minds flow back to him like torrents into the sea, he changes them all completely into his own nature, color, and taste. They will no longer be many but one in his unending and inseparable unity, because they are united and joined with him" (Letter to Melania 6). About a century later the anagogic mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius also uses diverse images and linguistic strategies to present a mysticism of identity that lies beyond all knowing and loving. Describing the ascent of Moses, an archetypal mystic for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Dionysius says: "Renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and invisible, he belongs completely to Him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is united to the wholly Unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, for the best, knowing beyond the mind in knowing nothing" (Mystical Theology 1.3).

The twelfth century was the golden age of speculation on oneness of spirit (unitas spiritus ), following the Pauline-Origenist tradition. Intense discussion of the modalities of union and the role of love and knowledge in unitive states was carried on by Cistercian authors, such as William of Saint Thierry (d. 1148) and Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), as well as the early scholastic systematizers of mysticism of the school of Saint Victor, such as Hugh (d. 1141) and Richard (d. 1173). Bernard is unrivaled in his subtle expositions of how the love between the soul and the Incarnate Word leads to a complete conformity of wills imaged in spousal union. Nevertheless Bernard insisted that oneness in loving (unus ) is different from the oneness of essence (unum ) enjoyed by the three persons of the Trinity (Sermons on the Song of Songs 71.69). Bernard's friend William of Saint Thierry did not abandon the Pauline language of union of spirit, but his profound treatment of how the Holy Spirit, transcendent Love itself, becomes the love by which one loves God moves in the direction of mystical identity. William was also significant for the ways in which he explored the transformation of the love-knowledge relation in the path to union. Love is more powerful than knowing on the way to God, but the height of love found in mystical union includes a transformed knowledge, what William called the intelligentia amoris.

Mystical union in Christianity, 12001700

In the thirteenth century new forms of mysticism burst upon the scene in Western Christendom. Attaining God in mystical uniting continued to be widely discussed (e.g., Bonaventure), but what is striking about the new mysticism of the later Middle Ages is the way in which many of its practitioners turned to the language of mystical identity to express their oneness with God. The move is first evident in some of the women mystics of the thirteenth century, especially the beguines Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. Porete's Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, one of the most striking presentations of mystical identity in the history of Christianity, employs an impressive range of forms of discourse to suggest how God, the "Farnear," takes the place of the soul that has perfectly annihilated itself: "Now he possesses the will without a why in the same way that he possessed it before she [the soul] was made a lady by it. There is nothing except him. No one loves except him, for nothing is except him, and thus he alone completely loves, and sees himself alone completely, and praises alone completely by his being itself" (Mirror, chap. 91).

Whereas the women mystics continued to employ both the language of mystical uniting and that of mystical identity, Meister Eckhart (d. 1327/8) was the foremost spokesperson for a pure mysticism of indistinct, or identical, union in the history of Christianity. Eckhart used the dialectical language of Neoplatonic philosophy to explore the distinct-indistinction of the ground of identity where "God's ground is the soul's ground and the soul's ground is God's ground" (German Sermon 6). Some passages even suggest attaining indistinction with the God-beyond-God, as in German Sermon 48, which says that the soul is not content with the Trinity of persons or the divine essence, "but it wants to know the source of this essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert where distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit." The teachings of Porete and Eckhart were too daring for the institutional church of the time. Porete was executed for heresy in 1310, and Eckhart was posthumously condemned in 1329.

Eckhart's language of indistinction was always qualified by his dialectical insistence on the continued distinction between God and creature. His followers Henry Suso and John Tauler continued to use the dialectic of distinction-indistinction, but they also introduced qualifications not found in Eckhart. Suso, for example, echoing what can be found in many ūfī mystics, carefully distinguished between the ongoing ontological difference between God and human and the perception of this difference. One can lose the latter in moments of mystical rapture but never the former, according to Suso. A particularly intricate solution to the problem of mystical union is found in the Dutch mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (d. 1381). According to his Little Book of Enlightenment, union with God exists on three interpenetrating levels: union with an intermediary achieved through grace and the ordinary means of salvation; union without an intermediary achieved through the excess of love, the level of unitas spiritus ; and finally, union without difference or distinction, "where the three Persons [of the Trinity] give way to the essential unity . There all the elevated spirits in their superessence are one enjoyment and one beatitude with God without difference." These levels always coexist, here and hereafter.

The debate over mystical union continued. In the fifteenth century Jean Gerson attacked false views of mystical union, not only of the Eckhartian variety but also those found in the writings of Ruusbroec and even some of the formulations of Bernard of Clairvaux. In the sixteenth century some of the radical reformers employed the language of mystical identity taken over from late medieval figures. The great Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) and John of the Cross (d. 1591) display a rich teaching on mystical union that cannot be explored here. Though each makes use of expressions that taken out of context might suggest some form of mystical identity, viewed synoptically they insist that the loving union that can be found in this life involves only conformity of the transformed self with God, not indistinction or identity. As John put it in his Spiritual Canticle 31.1: "This thread of love binds the two with such firmness and so unites and transforms them and makes them one in love, that, although they differ in substance, yet in glory and appearance the soul seems to be God and God the soul." In the mysticism of the seventeenth century that led to the condemnations of quietism (1687 and 1699), it was not so much the doctrine of union itself, as the teaching on annihilation and the supposed indifference to sin that resulted from this that was the focus of objections to mystical teaching.

Mystical Union in Islam

What is striking about Islam is the way in which strong forms of mystical identity emerged quite early in the development of the ūfī tradition. In part this reflects the impact of the noted union adīth (an extra-Qurʾanic divine statement): "I became the hearing with which he hears, the seeing with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, and the foot with which he walks." The emphasis on identity coexists along with highly developed forms of erotic union language. Through the absorption and transposition of themes from pre-Qurʾanic Arabian love poetry, the ūfī mystics, in both prose and verse, stand out among the most fervent proponents of the role of absolute, single-minded love in the pursuit of God, as such figures as Rābiʾah al-ʾAdawīyah (d. 810 ce), Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), and Fakhr al-Dīn ʿIrāqī (d. 1289) demonstrate. The ūfīs also explored the special characteristics of mystical knowing (maʾrifa ) with subtlety equal to that found in any tradition.

Tawīd, "to declare that God is one," is the central duty of all Muslims. The recognition that God alone is, that he is the sole agent, and that he alone can truly say "I" emphasizes that the absolute unity and simplicity of the transcendent creator also constitutes the immanent reality of all things, as the union adīth indicates. The eleventh-century Iranian mystic Ibn Hawāzin al-Qushayrī, whose Treatise on Sufism is among the most popular explanations of ūfī terms, put it thus: "For the appearance of the real, Most Praised, is the disappearance of the creature" (Sells, 1996, p. 132). Annihilation and identity are central to Islamic belief and the mysticism based upon it.

A variety of special terms with subtle connotations express various aspects of this identity mysticism. Among the most important are the twin terms fanāʾ and baqāʾ, conceived of as two crucial stages (maqāmat ) in the ūfī path. Fanāʾ, or passing away, is the annihilation of the ego consciousness, absolute nullification in the presence of the divine. (It has been compared to the Middle High German verb entwerden, "unbecoming," used by Eckhart [Schimmel, 1975, p. 142].) But fanāʾ is inseparable from baqāʾ, or subsisting, because when the human ceases to be, what remains is only the divine reality in which all things subsist. It is in this state that some ūfī mystics made ecstatic statements that belong properly to God, such as al-allāj's "I am the Truth" and al-Bisāmī's "Glory be to Me."

Closely related to fanāʾ and baqāʾ are two other sets of terms. The Arabic root w-j-d gives rise to a series of words expressing various forms of ecstasy in the sense of being found, or drawn out, by God (tawājud, wajd, wujūd ; Sells, 1996, pp. 110116). These can be described as states of intensification of existence achieved through passing away into pure divine existence. Another set of terms denotes different ways of speaking of union, or oneness (jamʾ ). According to Qushayrī's Treatise, both union in the sense of God's action in humans and separation, what the human does through acts of worship, are necessary. Beyond this duality lies what he and other ūfīs call the "union of union" (jamʾ al-jamʾ ), which Qushayrī says is "the utter perishing and passing away of all perception of any other-than-God, Most Glorious and Sublime, through the onslaughts of reality" (Sells, 1996, p. 118). The ūfīs denied that such expressions of mystical identity were to be thought of as forms of unification (ittiād ), as if God and human were two things mixed together. They also abjured ulūl, that is, indwelling or incarnationalism, by which God is conceived of as inside the human spirit, coexisting with it. However, in Islam, as in Christianity, some community leaders, and even some moderate ūfīs, accused other ūfīs of incarnationalism and improper expressions of union as well as of the antinomianism (ibahah ) some Christian mystics were said to have propounded. Such ūfīs as al-Sarrāj (d. 933 ce) and Rūzbihān Baqlī (d. 1209) worked out detailed defenses of the ecstatic statements of identity with God (shathiyat ) made by mystics like al-allāj and al-Bisāmī (see Ernst, 1985). Significant to this defense was the distinction between pronouncements made in the state of mystical intoxication (sukr ) and what could be legitimately said in ordinary consciousness, or the state of sobriety (aw ).

Important ūfī mystics

Of the host of names of ūfī mystics it is possible only to mention a few here. Jaʿfar as-ādiq (d. 765 ce), the sixth imam of the Shiite tradition, is among the earliest commentators on the Qurʾān. His treatment of the story of Moses (Mūsā) as told in Surā 7 treats the patriarch's experience of God on Sinai as an intimate conversation (munājāt ) that led to annihilation of the ego and divine self-proclamation: "Mūsā heard words coming forth from his humanity and attributed the words to him [the deity] and he spoke to him from the selfhood of Mūsā and his servanthood. Mūsā was hidden from himself and passed away from his attributes" (Sells, 1996, p. 80). Another early figure is the greatest female mystic of the Islamic tradition, Rābiʿah. The stories and sayings attributed to her in Farīd al-Dīn ʿAār's Memorial of the Friends of God testify not only to the power of her longing for God but also to her desire to worship God without intermediary.

The third and fourth centuries of Islam (ninth and tenth centuries ce) witnessed some of the strongest proponents of mystical identity in the history of monotheistic religion. The most famous figure is doubtless Ibn Manūr al-allāj, whose martyrdom in 922 ce made him a paradigmatic figure in Islam for debates over mysticism. But from the point of view of the comparative study of mystical union, no less important are two somewhat older contemporaries of allāj. Abū Yazīd al-Bisāmī (Bāyazīd in the Persian tradition) expressed identity with God in ways that were no less challenging than those of allāj. His writings contain remarkable forms of reduplicated expressions of total annihilation, the "passing away of passing away" (fanāʾ al-fanāʾ ). Like Muammad, who was credited with a celestial journey (Miʿrāj ; see Surā 17), al-Bisāmī dreamed he underwent an ascent through all the heavenly spheres to attain a vision of God in which he "melted away like lead" into indescribable union. Many of al-Bisāmī's sayings express the broken forms of discourse that often characterize mystical identity: "My I am is not I am. Because I am he, and I am he is he" (Ernst, 1985, p. 26).

No less daring, and perhaps more theoretically rich in his discussions of union, is the Baghdad ūfī, Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd (d. 910 ce). In his writings one finds not only a mind of great originality but also a moving personal witness. In discussing tawīd, for example, he says: "Fear grips me. Hope unfolds me. Reality draws me together. The real sets me apart. When he seizes me with fear, he annihilates me from myself through my existence, then preserves me from myself. From the reality of my annihilation, he annihilated me from both my abiding and my annihilation" (Sells, 1996, p. 254).

In the twelfth century the most famous of Muslim teachers, Abū āmid al-Ghazālī, a convert to the ūfī path, helped integrate the mystical impetus into the broad stream of tradition through such works as his treatise The Niche of Lights, which emphasized the distinction between mystical speech and ordinary discourse. The limits were tested again in the thirteenth century with the writings of three classic mystics, Ibn al-Fāri (d. 1235), Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240), and Rūmī (d. 1273). Al-Fāri and Rūmī, supreme mystical poets, were more easily incorporated into the tradition than Ibn al-ʿArabī. This Spanish ūfī was a philosopher, mystic, and poet who not only synthesized earlier mystical traditions but also raised them to a new level of profundity through his mystical philosophy of the unity of existence (wahdat al-wujūd ) in such works as his Bezels of Wisdom and the vast Meccan Revelations. Although Ibn al-ʿArabī was suspicious of divine identity statements made in ecstasy, his use of dialectical language in which references to God and human are inextricably fused was attacked both in his time and in later Islamic history. Each of these three figures, as well as a number of their successors in the later history of Sufism, would deserve extended treatment in a more ample account of the story of mystical union in Islam.

Jewish Conceptions of Mystical Union

The significance of unitive language in Jewish mystical traditions has been the subject of contention. Scholarly study of Judaism, born in the Enlightenment, relegated mysticism to the margins, seeking to demonstrate that Judaism was a rational form of moral monotheism. Even Gershom Scholem (1941 and 1971), who resurrected mysticism as central to Jewish history, sought to distinguish Jewish mysticism from Christian and Islamic forms, because its strict sense of the gulf between God and human made claims for mystical union, and especially mystical identity, suspect and secondary. Since the 1980s, however, new research by Moshe Idel (1988a, 1988b), Idel and Bernard McGinn (1996), and Rachel Elior (1993) has shown that unitive language, even expressions of mystical identity, is not at all foreign to Jewish mysticism, though it is late.

The earliest stages of Jewish mysticism represented by the Merkavah literature (c. second to tenth centuries ce) do not feature the language of union but concentrate on heavenly ascensions to a vision of the throne of God. Unitive language first appears in the mid-twelfth century in the early stages of Qabbalah. Though Jewish forms of unitive mysticism show important analogies to Christian and Muslim forms, the distinctive practices and linguistic character of Jewish mysticism, both in the various types of Qabbalah and in the later Hasidic mysticism, have their own hermeneutics.

Deuteronomy 4:4 states, "You who cleave to the Lord God are all alive this day" (cf. Dt. 10:20 and 13:5). The notion of "cleaving" (devekut ) provided a biblical warrant for later unitive forms of Jewish mysticism, not only those of mystical uniting but also stronger connotations of mystical identity. Moshe Idel (Idel and McGinn, 1996) has suggested that unitive understandings of devekut and related terms, such as hitahed (uniting) and yiud (union), express two models of mystical union: a universalizing type in which the soul of the mystic becomes all-embracing by cleaving to the Universal Object; and an annihilative-integrative model in which the mystic's ego is annihilated (as in ūfī fanāʾ ) in order to be perfectly integrated into the divine realm. The qabbalistic and Hasidic mystics who used strong forms of mystical identity, like their Christian and Muslim counterparts, usually qualified their statements by insisting that identity with God was not total; the ego remains or returns, at least in some way. Similarly even the most powerful proponents of identity language never broke with Jewish halakhic practice or lapsed into an antinomian posture. The only real heresy in the past eight centuries of Jewish history, that of Shabbetai Tsevi, was messianic in origin, not mystical.

Jewish unitive mystics

Among the earliest Jewish thinkers who spoke of mystical union was the mid-twelfth-century philosopher Abraham ibn Ezra, who saw Moses' cleaving to God as a model for the soul's return to its primordial state of universality. This theme continued on in Qabbalah, for example in ʾEzra of Gerona (c. 1250), who held that the soul of a prophet ascends until it is united to the "supernal soul in a complete union" (Idel, 1988a, p. 42), a formulation that seems to be influenced by Neoplatonic views. The most impressive work of Spanish Qabbalah, the Zohar, produced by mystical groups centered around Mosheh de Léon in the late thirteenth century, did not use extensive language of union, though the appearance of some unitive expressions (e.g., Zohar III.288a) became a proof text for later mystics. Other theosophical qabbalists, however, did employ considerable unitive language. For example, Isaac of Acre (active c. 1300) understood cleaving as the means for attaining the gift of prophecy in the soul's ascent to union with the hidden godhead of Qabbalah, the Ein Sof. Commenting on Leviticus 19:24, he says that the years of the maturation of fruit trees mentioned in the text are to be understood as the advance of the soul through mystical stages until, "'And in the fifth year,' which refers to the ʾEiyn Sof which surrounds everything, this soul will cleave to the ʾEiyn Sof and will become total and universal, after she had been individual, due to her palace, while she was yet imprisoned in it, and she will become universal, because of her source" (Idel, 1988a, p. 48). This reference to attaining a pre-creational state echoes a theme found in contemporary Christianity and Islam.

The most extreme formulations of identity mysticism in Qabbalah occur in the writing of Abraham Abulafia in the late thirteenth century. Abulafia's ecstatic form of Qabbalah, based upon practices of meditation and number manipulations, was fundamentally intellectualist. Like Plotinus, he envisaged an ascent to union with the Agent Intellect and finally to the Hidden God. Abulafia expresses this last stage in reduplicating language of fused pronouns comparable to some of the most extreme Muslim mystics: "For now he is no longer separated from his Master, and behold he is his Master and his Master is he; for he is so intimately united with him, that he cannot by any means be separated from him, for he is he" (Idel, 1988b, p. 10).

The Safedian qabbalism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also employed unitive language, as the examples of Mosheh Cordovero and Eliyyahu de Vidas indicate. Nevertheless it is fair to say that unitive mysticism was at its strongest in some of the forms of Hasidic mysticism that began in eastern Europe in the eighteenth century and that continue to flourish in the twenty-first century. The Hasidic mystics were deeply influenced by Qabbalah, but the qabbalists were generally more concerned with repairing the structures of the divine world, whereas the Hasidic masters stressed personal experiences of union.

Amid a wealth of unitive statements found in Hasidic mysticism, the materials from the Habad movement, founded by Dov Ber, the maggid of Mezhirich (d. 1772), stand out. In a disciple of the maggid, Shneʾur Zalman of Liadi (d. 1813), one finds extreme statements of annihilation and identity with the divine. In explaining the meaning of mystical interpenetration (hitkalelut ), Shneʾur says: "When man cleaves to God, it is very delightful for Him, and savorous for Him, so much so that He will swallow it into his heart, as the corporeal throat swallows. And this is the true cleaving, as he becomes one substance with God in whom he was swallowed, without being separate [from God] to be considered as a distinct entity at all" (Idel and McGinn, 1996, p. 43). Dov Ber of Lubavitch, Shneʾur's son, wrote Tract on Ecstasy, which carefully discriminated five levels of ecstatic progression in which the fourth level, one of annihilation, leads to the fifth form of ecstasy, "actual essential yeidah," which is "called 'ecstasy of the whole essence,' that is to say his whole being is so absorbed that nothing remains and he has no self-consciousness whatsoever" (Jacobs, 1963, pp. 136139). Other Habad mystics, such as Aharon Halevi Horowitz of Staroselye (d. 1828), were even more daring in their claims for attaining mystical identity, but this is not the place to pursue mystical union in Habad, or among other Hasidic leaders, such as the famous Naman of Bratslav (d. 1810).


Union, whether conceived of as the uniting of God and human or in a deeper way as some form of identity with God, has been a key feature of the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although direct links between the mysticisms of the three faiths have been relatively rare, the common dynamics of monotheistic attempts to express their consciousness of becoming one with God display analogies that invite further investigation and promise important contributions to ecumenical under-standing.


Beierwaltes, Werner. Denken des Einen: Studien zur neuplatonischen Philosophie und ihrer Wirkungsgeschichte. Frankfurt, Germany, 1985. A major study of Neoplatonic mysticism with a fine chapter on henōsis in Plotinus.

Dupuy, Michel. "L'union à Dieu." In Dictionnaire de spiritualité: Ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, edited by Marcel Viller et al., vol. 16, cols. 4061. Paris, 1992. A survey of Christian materials.

Elior, Rachel. The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism. Albany, N.Y., 1993. An introduction to Habad Hasidism and its language of union.

Ernst, Carl W. Words of Ecstasy in Sufism. Albany, N.Y., 1985. Important study of the role of ecstatic utterances in Sufism.

Gardet, Louis. "Theólogie de la mystique." Revue Thomiste 71 (1971): 571588.

Haas, Alois M. "Unio mystica." In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, edited by Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer, and Gottfried Gabriel, vol. 11, cols. 176179. Basel, Switzerland, 2001. A detailed study of the term.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven, Conn., 1988a. Fundamental to recent work on Qabbalah, with two chapters on mystical union.

Idel, Moshe. Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah. Albany, N.Y., 1988b. See the first essay, "Abraham Abulafia and Unio Mystica."

Idel, Moshe, and Bernard McGinn, eds. Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue. 2d ed. New York, 1996. See especially the essays by Idel, McGinn, and Michael A. Sells on unitive language in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Jacobs, Louis, trans. and ed. Dobh Baer of Lubavitch: "Tract on Ecstasy." London, 1963.

Jantzen, Grace. "Chang'an Where Two Are to Become One': Mysticism and Monism." In The Philosophy in Christianity, edited by Godfrey Vesey, pp. 147166. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

McGinn, Bernard. The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism. New York, 1991. Three volumes have appeared as of 2004. Unitive language is studied in all of them.

McGinn, Bernard. "Ocean and Desert as Symbols of Mystical Absorption in the Christian Tradition." Journal of Religion 74 (1994): 155181.

Merkur, Dan. Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking. Albany, N.Y., 1999. Argues for a new psychological approach to unitive thinking and contains a useful survey of modern theories of unio mystica.

Pépin, Jean. "'Stilla aquae modica multo infusa vino, ferrum ignitum, luce perfusus aere': L'origine de trois comparisons familières à la théologie mystique médiévale." Divinitas 11 (1967): 331375. Classic article on history of three images for mystical union.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. A classic work on Sufism with consideration of unitive language.

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York, 1941. Classic work, though Scholem's view of the role of union in Judaism is contested.

Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York, 1971. See the essay "Devekut, or Communion with God."

Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago, 1994. A challenging analysis of strong identity statements in Neoplatonism, Christianity, and Islam.

Sells, Michael A., trans. and ed. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʾan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York, 1996. A fine anthology of early Islamic mystical texts with insightful discussions of the role of mystical union.

Bernard McGinn (2005)