(Iqbal’s observations on Mystic Experience)
Since the quality of mystic experience is to be directly experienced, it is obvious that it cannot be communicated.
Mystic states are more like feeling than thought. The interpretation which the mystic or the prophet puts on the content of his religious consciousness can be conveyed to others in the form of propositions, but the content itself cannot be so transmitted. Thus in the following verses of the Quran it is the psychology and not the content of the experience that is given:
‘It is not for man that God should speak to him, but by vision or from behind a veil; or He sendeth a messenger to reveal by His permission what He will: for He is Exalted, Wise’ (42:51).
‘By the star when it setteth,
Your compatriot erred not, nor is he led astray.
Neither speaketh he from mere impulse.
The Quran is no other than the revelation revealed to him:
One strong in power taught it him,
Endowed with wisdom with even balance stood he
In the highest part of the horizon:
Then came he nearer and approached,
And was at the distance of two bows or even closer –
And he revealed to the servant of God what he revealed:
His heart falsified not what he saw:
What! will ye then dispute with him as to what he saw?
He had seen him also another time
Near the Sidrah tree which marks the boundary:
Near which is the garden of repose:
When the Sidrah tree was covered with what covered it:
His eye turned not aside, nor did it wander:
For he saw the greatest of the signs of the Lord’ (53:1-18).
The incommunicability of mystic experience is due to the fact that it is essentially a matter of inarticulate feeling, untouched by discursive intellect. It must, however, be noted that mystic feeling, like all feeling, has a cognitive element also; and it is, I believe, because of this cognitive element that it lends itself to the form of idea. In fact, it is the nature of feeling to seek expression in thought. It would seem that the two – feeling and idea – are the non-temporal and temporal aspects of the same unit of inner experience. But on this point I cannot do better than quote Professor Hocking who has made a remarkably keen study of feeling in justification of an intellectual view of the content of religious consciousness:
‘What is that other-than-feeling in which feeling may end? I answer, consciousness of an object. Feeling is instability of an entire conscious self: and that which will restore the stability of this self lies not within its own border but beyond it. Feeling is outward-pushing, as idea is outward-reporting: and no feeling is so blind as to have no idea of its own object. As a feeling possesses the mind, there also possesses the mind, as an integral part of that feeling, some idea of the kind of thing which will bring it to rest. A feeling without a direction is as impossible as an activity without a direction: and a direction implies some objective. There are vague states of consciousness in which we seem to be wholly without direction; but in such cases it is remarkable that feeling is likewise in abeyance. For example, I may be dazed by a blow, neither realizing what has happened nor suffering any pain, and yet quite conscious that something has occurred: the experience waits an instant in the vestibule of consciousness, not as feeling but purely as fact, until idea has touched it and defined a course of response. At that same moment, it is felt as painful. If we are right, feeling is quite as much an objective consciousness as is idea: it refers always to something beyond the present self and has no existence save in directing the self toward that object in whose presence its own career must end!’
Thus you will see that it is because of this essential nature of feeling that while religion starts with feeling, it has never, in its history, taken itself as a matter of feeling alone and has constantly striven after metaphysics. The mystic’s condemnation of intellect as an organ of knowledge does not really find any justification in the history of religion. But Professor Hocking’s passage just quoted has a wider scope than mere justification of idea in religion. The organic relation of feeling and idea throws light on the old theological controversy about verbal revelation which once gave so much trouble to Muslim religious thinkers.40 Inarticulate feeling seeks to fulfill its destiny in idea which, in its turn, tends to develop out of itself its own visible garment. It is no mere metaphor to say that idea and word both simultaneously emerge out of the womb of feeling, though logical understanding cannot but take them in a temporal order and thus create its own difficulty by regarding them as mutually isolated. There is a sense in which the word is also revealed.
Summarized from Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. pg 20,21
Note: Iqbal notes that the mystic experience can only be explained in terms of examples but the actual experience remains the sole fruit of the mystic.