Mircea Eliade the Sacred and Islam

Mircea Eliade was certainly aware of the religious and political significance of the founder-Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (c. 570-632). Indeed, the subtitle of the third volume of his A History of Religious Ideas is From Muhammad to the Age of Reforms. It is in this work that he provides one of the closest and most extensive insights into his thinking about Islam and the sacred.506 His sources are varied but, by the date of publication in i9®5, already somewhat dated. They range from A. J. Arberry' s translation of the Qur'an507 to W. Montgomery Watt's Muhammad at Mecca50® and Tor Andrae's Mohammed: The Man and His Faith.509

Eliade begins his presentation of Islam by characterising Allah in his initial heading as 'deus otiosus of the Arabs'5i° which seems an odd way of speaking about the Sacred! Dictionary definitions of the English word 'otiose', which may directly translate the Latin otiosus, are not very helpful: 'Not required, serving no practical purpose, functionless ... indolent or futile'.5" The classical Latin usage of otiosus does not greatly improve our understanding: 'At leisure, without occupation ... free from public duties or occupied in literary work only ... calm, quiet ... indifferent, neutral ... free, quiet, undisturbed'.5" One wonders at first whether Eliade intends his usage to be a reference to Allah in His capacity as originator of the Qur'an, where the latter may be regarded as the mind of God made textual, thereby tying in with the classical authorial definition cited above. However, it transpires that Eliade's designation refers to Allah's role in the pre-Islamic 'Age of Ignorance', the Jahiliyya, where, although 'Lord of the Ka'ba', He had 'already become a deus otiosus: his cult had been reduced to certain offerings of first fruits (grains and animals), which were brought to him conjointly with various local divinities'.5i3

Eliade applauds what he perceives as the 'rich historic documentation' for the life of Muhammad.5M He characterises the religious milieu of pre-Islamic Central Arabia as imbued essentially with 'the structures of Semitic polytheism' unmodified by the impact of Christianity or Judaism.5^ Its centre is identified as Mecca, and

Eliade goes on to focus on aspects of sacred hajj ritual in the jahili period, as well as the pre-eminence of the three goddesses Manat, al-Lat and al-'Uzza. He accepts without further question the story of the Satanic verses.516 In Eliadean terms, this was a profane but temporary aberration. So, in a nutshell, for Eliade, religion in pre-Islamic Arabia 'resembled the popular religion of Palestine in the sixth century bc'.517

Eliade goes on to seek the elements of the sacred and the mystical in this 'new' religion of Islam with a deus, previously considered to be otiosus, now supplanting all other gods. He notes the lack of a formal priesthood in pre-Islam, by contrast with Judaism and the presence of those non-Christian and non-Judaic monotheists known as hanifs.518

He dwells at some length on the mystical experiences of Muhammad as the latter received the first revelation of the Qur'an (Q.96:i-5) according to the tradition of Ibn Ishaq.519 And, as an anthropologist and historian of religion, Eliade is interested in human responses to the mystical, whether mental or physical; for him, there was a mystical 'intertextuality'

Muhammad's initial resistance recalls the hesitation of shamans and numerous mystics and prophets before assuming their vocation. It is likely that the Quran did not mention the oneiric vision in the cavern in order to avoid the accusation that the Prophet had been possessed by a jinn. But other allusions of the Quran confirm the veracity of the inspiration. The command to 'recite' was often accompanied by violent trembling, attacks of fevers, or chills.520

In identifying the themes of the Qur'an, Eliade dwells on God's power and mercy521 and the eschatology of the sacred text.522 In surveying the latter, Eliade appears to identify Muhammad as the author523 rather than adopting the preferred phenomenological approach of modern Western, non-Muslim scholarship, which is to emphasise Muslim belief in the divine provenance of the Qur'an.

Given Eliade's intellectual and mystical interests, it comes as no surprise that he is captivated by the story of the mi'raj, Muhammad's ascension into Heaven. Eliade characterises this, not in the more normal Arabist and Islamicist terminology of isra', night journey, and mi'raj, ascension through the heavens to Paradise, but, interestingly, as Muhammad's 'ecstatic voyage to Heaven and the Holy Book'.524 The intertextual dimension interests Eliade, and he draws parallels with other prophets and messengers in other faith traditions who have experienced an ascension into a Heaven and received therein a text of divine revelation.525

After briefly surveying the hijra to Medina and the ultimate reconquest of Mecca in a virtually bloodless fashion, Eliade concludes: 'The history of religions and universal history know of no enterprise comparable to that of Muhammad'.526 Islamic morphology is identified as encapsulating 'the purest expression of absolute monotheism'.527 It is noted that early rituals are presented and represented, interpreted and reinterpreted in an effort to provide a ritual intertext between the three Abrahamic faiths.

When it comes to Islamic theology and Süfism, Eliade freely acknowledges that he grounds his interpretation in that of his friend, the great Iranologist Henry

Corbin, who died in 1978.528 In his survey of both kalam (Islamic scholastic theology) and Sufism, Eliade follows a fairly traditional route, one that has been elaborated upon many times by scholars before and after him.529 However, Eliade manifests a particular fascination for the 'symbolism and function' of the dhikr, the sufï litany, and the sama', the 'spiritual concert' of the sufïs.53° He draws the expected parallels with the Eastern Christian prayer, the monologistos, as well as with Indian mystical practices.531 Such is Eliade's fascination with Sufism that he concludes his survey of the great theologians, philosophers and mystics of Islam with a lament that Islamic mysticism was not better known in the mediaeval West.532 It is clear that, at the end of two full chapters on the doctrines and rituals of Islam, in which are highlighted elements of the sacred and the mystical, Eliade best locates Islam's sacred dimension within its mystical spaces.

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