This is from a mini-essay I wrote to an atheist community, in the hopes of eliciting some discussion on the shallowness and depth of believers. It borrows heavily from the talks of Pak Subuh.
The Islamic tradition details four levels of religious experience: the lowermost is “shari’at”, where one accepts the revealed truth of a religion and its rules and regulations. This is the faith that most people hold: it is based wholly on acceptance of inherited truths. In this faith, it is enough to say the words and do the motions and then go on with your day. When people of this level speak about faith or reality, their language sounds like a ‘code’ to the outsider, they tend to bend all arguments to their narrowing viewpoint, and they come off as either pompous, batty or ambiguous— this is because they have not yet made the accepted truths their own, and so are unable to translate their faith into the present moment, be it in a dialogue or argument or some lackadaisical pedestrian philosophizing. Again: these are the most common type of believers. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing bluegrass because country radio sucks.
The second level is called “tarekat”—this is where a believer begins to think: “Okay, I say what I should say, and do what I should do—but why? What is the meaning behind these words and morals?” This type of believer is not necessarily more ‘open minded’ than the preceding, but they are more deep minded about their beliefs. Most pastors and ministers fit into this tier. When speaking of matters of faith they will often have anecdotes to share, and will be able to communicate the subtleties of their creedo more or less smartly and with varying degrees of panache. However, communication will break down once the topic of direct experience is broached. They are still restrained to the traditional belief system, and won’t be able to comfortably walk into atheistic territory with you because they must stay close to their central tenants to make sense of things. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing Apple based solely on their closed iOS platform—that is, most of their beliefs are based on a “design philosophy” that allows this and disallows that—and if they don’t jive with you, it’s more or less a matter of personal taste, not essential reality.
Now here is where things get interesting. The third level of religious devotion is called, in Islam, the “hakekat”. This means reality. You will find these persons rarely, but you will find them even among atheists. These are the ones for whom beliefs and statements are tertiary, where actual reality is central. They shine with an ‘inner light’—because they live by example: they know that teaching is the biggest lie, that everyone needs to come to terms with the terms of life on their own.
There is a fourth level, but that doesn’t really apply to normal people. We could say this fourth level is there—“ma’rifat” by name—as the sort of Ideal to be attained. It means an at-one-ment (to pilfer a shimmering jewel from Dan Brown) with the spiritual process. These are the prophets: they are a statistical improbability.