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SUFISM  AND  Neurotheology

By Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D.

President, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.

Louisville, KY 40242-6462

Daytime Phone: (502) 287-6262

E-Mail: President@IRFI.ORG



Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam based on the esoteric, or "inner-meaning" of its sacred scripture which is the Noble Qur'an. The Qur'an, the book of Allah’s revelations to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), contains numerous passages of a mystical character which the Sufis seized upon eagerly to buttress their own claims to personal trafficking with God. 

Sufism's central doctrine is based on a verse of the Qur'an; in which God says, "I created man and breathed My spirit into him." This "Divine spark" placed into every individual, says the Sufi, must be nurtured and cherished. Furthermore, each individual "spark" or "spirit" separated from the Universal Spirit, desires to return and reunite with the Universal spirit. This is confirmed by another verse in the Qur'an (Surah Baqarah, 2: 157) which says "from God we came and to God shall we return." This "returning" is vital and central to the Sufi doctrine. "We are nearer to him than the jugular vein." Surah 50: 51.  "All that dwells upon the earth is perishing, yet still abides the Face of thy Lord, majestic, splendid."  Surah 55: 26

Now, the Sufi goes on a spiritual journey known as the Sufi Path; a path of devotion and love; which leads to none other than God Himself.  "Man qaala laa ilaaha ill Allah, dakhala al-janna" Whoever says, 'There is no god, but God,' enters Paradise- Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad.

Origin and Background  1

The name Sufi comes from “suf,” the Arabic word for wool or “saf,” the Persian word for pure. The dervishes or advanced students of Sufism wore inexpensive wool clothes as part of their life of renunciation.  Sufism is known in Arabic as 'Tasawwuf' or Islamic Mysticism. A Sufi is a mystic that is a person who strives towards intimate knowledge or communion with God; through contemplation, meditation and or "inner-vision."  Sufism or tasawwuf is the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam.  

The origin of Sufism goes back to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Prophet of Islam, who received the Divine Revelation known as the 'Qur'an,' over a period of 23 years. As all Muslims know;  the Noble  Qur'an is a "multi-layered revelation," whose verses can be interpreted literally, metaphorically, philosophically, and mystically.

The Prophet (pbuh) used to explain and clarify the meaning of each chapter and verse of the Qur'an to his immediate friends and companions. To a select few of his Companions he explained the mystical interpretation of the verses; thus starting a "chain of transmission" of the esoteric meaning of the Qur'an. This was conveyed first by "word of mouth" from master to pupil or disciple.

Rituals and Practices

The following are certain practices that are common to all the Sufi orders:

1  Ritual prayer and fasting according to Islamic injunctions.
2. Remembrance of the "spiritual lineage" of each order.
3. The practice of "dhikr," an Arabic word for remembrance of God, by invocation.
4. Meditative and contemplative practices, including intensive spiritual training, in "spiritual retreats" from time to time.
5. Listening to musical concerts, to enhance mystical awareness.

A Sufi advocates ruling oneself according to the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW), i.e., to worship Allah and not to assign any partners to Him. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) himself did not receive the revelation of the Glorious Qur'an directly from Allah; rather, Allah Subhana wa Ta'ala revealed the Qur'an and its tafsir to the Prophet (SAW) through Angel Jibril (AS), who functioned as his (SAW) Shaykh.

Phrases from the Qur'an are interpreted in a variety of ways by the Sufis. For example, the line "Everywhere you turn, there is the face of God" has been explained in many ways by Sufi poets and mystics.

Spiritual enlightenment cannot be achieved without hard work.  Some of the ways in which they practice is contemplation of particular words of phrases of the Qur'an, fasting and bodily exercises such as spending all night in prayer.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would often sit alone in the cave of Hira, near Mecca, to pray and meditate, asking the Creator of the Heavens and earth for answers to the questions that surged through his mind. What is man's true role in life?  What does the Lord require of us? From where does man come, and where will he go after death? The Prophet would meditate alone, surrounded by nature, seeking answers to all these profound questions.

Awakening to the Awareness of the Unmanifest World 2

When Sufis follow the Sufi path, at any moment   Sufis may have an experience in which they become drawn into the presence of God. This experience has often been called jadhbah (attraction) or wajd (ecstasy) (lit. finding). Another way of speaking of this experience is to describe it as "awakening to the 'unmanifest or unseen world'(al-ghayb)."  Muslim scholars have explained how   Prophet Muhammad's knowledge of the Unseen as well as the unveiling (kashf) or knowledge of the Unseen that the "friends of God" or "saints" (awliya') attain.

In one of the more important works of early Persian literature, Kashf al-mahjub (Uncovering the veiled), Hujwiri, or Data Ganj Bakhsh as he is also known, in the 11th century  CE discussed various views of Ma'rifah: Gnosis or Direct Knowledge of God, which is an important epistemological principle in Sufism.

Al-Ghazali's Treatise on Direct Knowledge from God: Introduction, indicates the opinion of one of Islam's greatest scholars concerning the possibility that humans--aside from prophets--can attain "direct knowledge" from God. Imam Ghazzali, who states in his book 'Al-Munqidh min-al-Dalal (Rescuer from Error)' :

"When after acquiring proficiency in these Sciences [traditional sciences], I turned my attention to the methods of the Sufis, I came to know that their method attains perfection by means of theory and practice. The gist of their knowledge is to mortify the self and acquire freedom from baser passions and evil attributes so that the heart may get rid of the thought of any thing save God and to embellish it with Divine remembrance."

Sufis' attainment of the knowledge that comes with such intimacy with God, Sufis assert, is the very purpose of the creation.  In this connection they mention the Hadith Qudsi in which God states, "I was a hidden treasure and I loved that I be known, so I created the creation in order to be known." Hence for the Sufis they have a continuous attraction on their hearts exerted by God, pulling them, in love, towards God. They experience the joyful ecstasy of being gently drawn to their Eternal Beloved, yet this primordially blissful return seems to have been interrupted.


"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religion." - Albert Einstein

Mysticism is usually defined in dictionaries and encyclopedias as a spiritual discipline used to make contact with the divine. While this definition is frequently correct, there have been many people who have had mystical experiences without following a special discipline. Conversely, many people have followed a set of spiritual practices carefully and for a prolonged period but have never contacted the divine.

The mystical event is a personal experience during which one feels as though one has been touched by some higher or greater truth or power. This may occur inside or outside of a religious setting, within or outside a religious tradition.

In some cases, mystical experience is seen as an important component of a religious tradition because it can offer validation of a tradition's belief system. It also can be important in attracting adherents because many people hope to have similar experiences. However, because the mystical experience is so powerful and has the capacity to provide moral, ethical, intellectual, and emotional direction, it is frequently mistrusted.

Mystical Experience 3

Mystical experiences are marked by all or some of the following feelings/insights.

  • A sense of unity or totality
  • A sense of timelessness
  • A sense of having encountered ultimate reality
  • A sense of sacredness
  • A sense that one can not adequately describe the richness of this experience

Most of these experiences can persist only for a few seconds or up to a few days.

Mystical  experience defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.  Although very similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth immeasurable by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all are  inarticulate.  Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.  Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by meditation, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.  (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Penguin Books, 1985 New York, NY, Pp.380-381)

The mystical experience is a transient, extraordinary experience marked by feelings of being in unity, harmonious relationship to the divine and everything in existence, as well as euphoric feelings, loss of ego functioning, alterations in time and space perception, and the sense of lacking control over the event.

Neurotheology 4

Neurotheology, also known as biotheology, is an emerging field of scientific study that analyzes the biological basis of spirituality. This deals with the neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective experiences traditionally categorized as spiritual, such as feeling that time, fear and self-consciousness have dissolved, spiritual awe, oneness with the universe, ecstatic trance, sudden enlightenment and other altered states of consciousness which are the basis for many religious beliefs and behaviors.

Neurotheology is the scientific study of what happens to brain activity during religious or spiritual experiences. It is a recent development, made possible because of advances in brain-imaging (MRI-Magnetic Resonance Imaging, PET-Positron Emission Tomography, and SPECT-Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography). Current Neurotheology is answering questions like why brain waves change, and which specific regions in the brain lie behind the change. The idea is to use the latest tools available within psychology and neuroscience to detect which parts of the brain are active during spiritual experiences. Scientists have long been puzzled, for example, by the fact that some sufferers from epilepsy appear to experience religious hallucinations or revelations during their seizures. Neurotheology can answer this question.

In Neurotheology, neuroscientists (psychologists and neurologists) try to pinpoint which regions of the brain turn on, and which turn off, during subjective experiences that seem to exist outside time and space.

By tracing the neural origins of religious experiences, the more radical advocates of Neurotheology hope to understand not only how brain activity mirrors spiritual experiences but also how it can cause those experiences 5. Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist at Canada's Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, used a helmet filled with magnets to surround the skulls of his subjects stimulating their temporal lobes with a weak magnetic field. This helmet was capable of producing a very weak rotating magnetic field of between ten nanotesla and one microtesla (1 microtesla is roughly that generated by a computer monitor) over the temporal lobes of the brain. When lobes are exposed with precise wavelength patterns that are supposed to affect human mind in a stunning way, artificially inducing the sensation "that I am seeing God." The result, according to Persinger, was to induce a “mystical experience” in four out of five people taking part (New Scientist, 19 November 1994, p.29).

Religious experiences, he concluded, were simply bursts of electrical activity in the frontal lobes which could be triggered by a variety of emotions or physical stimuli. When the right hemisphere of the brain, the seat of emotion, is stimulated in the cerebral region presumed to control notions of self, and then the left hemisphere, the seat of language, is called upon to make sense of this nonexistent entity, the mind generates a "sensed presence" (a  feeling that somebody was in the chamber with them).

If one part of the brain is “wired” to have religious experiences, it might explain why religion refuses to die in the modern world. It appears there is a God Spot in our brains.6   

Your Brain on Religion 7

Anyone can suddenly feel a sense of enlightenment unlike anything one had ever experienced.  The sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around evaporates like a morning mist in a bright morning sun. The sense of "I, me, and mine" disappears. "Time was not present," one can say.  "One can experience a sense of eternity. Fear of death and insinuations of selfhood vanishes.  One is graced by knowledge of the ultimate nature of things."  However, a neurologist or neuroscientist wants to study this spiritual and mystical experience. In order to feel that time, fear and self-consciousness have dissolved, a neurologist reasons, certain brain circuits must be interrupted. Which ones? Activity in the amygdala, which monitors the environment for threats and registers fear, must be damped. Parietal-lobe circuits, which orient you in space and mark the sharp distinction between self and world, must go quiet. 
Frontal- and temporal-lobe circuits, which mark time and generate self-awareness, must disengage. When that happens, "what we think of as our 'higher' functions of selfhood appear briefly to 'drop out,' 'dissolves,' or be 'deleted from consciousness'. (Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness by James H. Austin, MIT Press, 1998, 896 pp.  Cambridge, MA).                                                                               

More and more scientists have flocked to "Neurotheology," the study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality and they try to pinpoint which regions in the brain turn on, and which turn off, during experiences that seem to exist outside time and space.  They have published books like "Varieties of Anomalous Experience," "Religion in Mind," "Why God Won't Go Away". In a nutshell, though, they use the data to identify what seems to be the brain's spirituality circuit, and to explain how it is that religious rituals have the power to move believers and nonbelievers alike.


Buddhist practitioners of meditation were injected with a radioactive tracer when they reached a stage of quieting their conscious mind and until something they identified as their true inner self emerged. It felt "timeless and infinite, a part of everyone and everything in existence."  After a few moments, their heads   were scanned under a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) machine. SPECT detects the tracer as it tracks blood flow in the brain. Blood flow correlates with neuronal activity.  The study showed the frontal lobe lights up (became active) during meditation.

The SPECT images are as close as scientists have come to snapping a photo of a transcendent experience. As expected, the prefrontal cortex, seat of attention, lit up.  But it was a quieting of activity that stood out. A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, toward the top and back of the brain, had gone dark. This region, nicknamed the "orientation association area," processes information about space and time, and the orientation of the body in space.


The orientation area requires sensory input to do its calculus. "If sensory inputs to this region are blocked, as one does during the intense concentration of meditation, one can prevent the brain from forming the distinction between self and not-self," says Newberg author of the Book "Why God Won't Go Away."  With no information from the senses arriving, the left orientation area cannot find any boundary between the self and the world. As a result, the brain seems to have no choice but "to perceive the self as endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything. The right orientation area, equally bereft of sensory data, defaults to a feeling of infinite space. The meditators feel that they have touched infinity. It determines where the body ends and the rest of the world begins. Specifically, the left orientation area creates the sensation of a physically delimited body; the right orientation area creates the sense of the physical space in which the body exists." (Why God Won't Go Away : Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, Eugene G. D'Aquili, Vince Rause, Andrew B. Newberg Published by Ballantine Books; 1st edition, April 3, 2001) .


Visions that arise during prayer or ritual are also generated by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes (which nestle along the sides of the head and house the circuits responsible for language, conceptual thinking and associations) produces visions. The temporal lobe controls hearing, speech and memory. The brain has two temporal lobes, one on each side of the brain, located near the ears. The two are interchangeable so if one is damaged the other is usually able to take over the other's function.

Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE) 8

TLE is a condition in which the patient suffers repeated seizures when there is abnormal electrical activity in the temporal lobes of the brain. These seizures may be simple partial seizures without loss of awareness or they can be complex partial seizures with loss of awareness. The patient loses awareness during a complex partial seizure because the seizure spreads to both lobes, causing memory loss. The condition was first recognised in 1881.

TLE seems to trigger vivid religious visions and voices.  If one truly feels having visions, the cause is temporal-lobe epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy causes fits, and religious hallucinations, but neurologists think only a few patients with temporal lobe epilepsy experience them. Feodor Dostoevsky, Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others are thought to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, leaving them obsessed with matters of the spirit.

Although temporal-lobe epilepsy is rare, researchers suspect that focused bursts of electrical activity called "temporal-lobe transients" may yield mystical experiences.

As mentioned earlier, Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada found a weak magnetic field triggers bursts of electrical activity in the temporal lobes, producing sensations that volunteers describe as supernatural or spiritual: an out-of-body experience, a sense of the divine. He suspects that religious experiences are evoked by mini electrical storms in the temporal lobes, and that such storms can be triggered by anxiety, personal crisis, lack of oxygen, low blood sugar and simple fatigue-suggesting a reason that some people "find God" in such moments. Why the temporal lobes? Persinger speculates that our left temporal lobe maintains our sense of self. When that region is stimulated but the right stays quiescent, the left interprets this as a sensed presence, as the self departing the body, or of God.


Vilayanur Ramachandran (V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and professor with the Psychology Department and the Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute)  says, " there is a neural basis for religious experience." His preliminary results suggested that depth of religious feeling, or religiosity, might depend on natural (not helmet-induced) enhancements in the electrical activity of the temporal lobes. His test for consciousness includes three properties: irrevocability, choice and memory. Any living being that exhibits these features can be said to be conscious. Ramachandran thinks that consciousness as well as religious feelings are located in the temporal lobes and associated limbic structures. Interestingly, this region of the brain also seems important for speech perception. One experience common to many spiritual states is hearing the voice of God. It seems to arise when you misattribute inner speech (the "little voice" in your head that you know you generate yourself) to something outside yourself. During such experiences, the brain's Broca's area (responsible for speech production) switches on. Most of us can tell this is our inner voice speaking. But when sensory information is restricted, as happens during meditation or prayer, people are "more likely to misattribute internally generated thoughts to an external source," suggests psychologist Richard Bentall of the University of Manchester in England in the book "Varieties of Anomalous Experience."(Varieties
of Anomalous Experiences: Examining Scientific Evidence Edited by Etzel Cardena, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley Krippner. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2000, 320 pages).   

In a 1998 study, researchers found that one particular brain region, called the right anterior cingulate, turned on when people heard something in the environment-a voice or a sound-and also when they hallucinated hearing something. But it stayed quiet when they imagined hearing something and thus were sure it came from their own brain. This region, says Bentall, "may contain the neural circuits responsible for tagging events as originating from the external world." When it is inappropriately switched on, we are fooled into thinking the voice we hear comes from outside us.

EXPLANATION OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES:                                                         

Religious emotions: The middle temporal lobe is linked to emotional aspects of religious experience, such as joy and awe.

Sacred images: The lower temporal lobe is involved in the process by which images, such as candles or crosses for Christians, facilitate prayer and meditation.                                                   

Response to religious words: At the juncture of three lobes, this region governs response to language.

Cosmic unity: When the parietal lobes quiet down, a person can feel at one with the universe.  


1. An Introduction to Sufism by Zakir Hussain

2.   Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders.

3.  The Mystical Experience Registry.



6. This Is Your Brain on God, Wired magazine Issue 7.11, Nov 1999.

7. Your Brain on Religion: Mystic visions or brain circuits at work? By Sharon Begley, Newsweek, May 7, 2001.

8. God on the Brain - questions and answers. BBC  April 17, 2005

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