Reading "Islam and the Misuses of Ecstasy" by Sam Harris brought back some memories. I wouldn't call them exactly religiously ecstatic, but they were damn close.
The first time I went to India, for two weeks in 1977, I was able to experience one of the large "bhandaras" held at the headquarters of Radha Soami Satsang Beas in the Punjab. This is a photo I took, showing just a portion of the gigantic crowd that had come to hear and see the RSSB guru.
(I wrote in "God's here, but I've got to go" about the decidedly non-ecstatic experience of desperately having to pee while the guru was giving a lengthy discourse and everyone was sitting spellbound.)
Since Radha Soami Satsang Beas is an offshoot of the Sikh tradition, before the guru would appear chanters sang, if that's the right word, passages from the Adi Granth. This was deeply moving to me, even though I couldn't understand what was being said.
Believing is powerful.
Most of the tens of thousands at the bhandara believed that the guru was God in human form, a modern-day Jesus. I did also, though likely not as fervently -- having a more skeptical Western mind.
The atmosphere at a religious gathering like this is almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't been devoted to an other-worldly belief system. It isn't like being at a football ("soccer," as we Americans say) match where 70,000 people are cheering for their team.
There's some resemblance to the empassioned communal frenzy of a sports event, but religious ecstasy flows in much deeper waters. After all, we're talking eternal salvation here, not a temporary win-loss record.
Sam Harris speaks eloquently of the appeal that such religious experiences have.
First, by way of putting my own empathy on my sleeve, let me say a few things that will most likely surprise many of my readers. Despite my antipathy for the doctrine of Islam, I think the Muslim call to prayer is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth.
...I find this ritual deeply moving—and I am prepared to say that if you don’t, you are missing something. At a minimum, you are failing to understand how devout Muslims feel when they hear this. I think everything about the call to prayer is glorious—apart from the fact that, judging by the contents of the Koran, the God we are being asked to supplicate is evil and almost surely fictional.
Nevertheless, if this same mode of worship were directed at the beauty of the cosmos and the mystery of consciousness, few things would please me more than a minaret at dawn.
However, there are dangers in religious ecstasy -- particularly, for Harris, the Muslim variety.
This video has everything: the power of ritual and the power of the crowd; tears of devotion and a lust for vengeance. How many of the people in that mosque are jihadists? I have no idea—perhaps none. But their spiritual aspirations and deepest positive emotions—love, devotion, compassion, bliss, awe—are being focused through the lens of sectarian hatred and humiliation.
Read every word of the translation so that you understand what these devout people are weeping over. Their ecstasy is inseparable from the desire to see nonbelievers punished in hellfire. Is this some weird distortion of the true teachings of Islam? No. This is a recitation from the Koran articulating itscentral message. The video has over 2 million views on YouTube. It was posted by someone who promised his fellow Muslims that they, too, would weep tears of devotion upon seeing it.
The reciter is Sheikh Mishary bin Rashid Alafasy of Kuwait. He has as many Twitter followers as Jerry Seinfeld and J.K. Rowling (2 million). In doctrinal terms, this is not the fringe of Islam. It is the center.
I only watched the first four minutes or so of the eight minute video. That was enough to get the "infidels will burn in hellfire" message.
And to be reminded of how beautiful chanting of sacred scripture can be. I hadn't realized how much Islamic chanting sounds like Sikh chanting.
As Harris reminds us, though, there is an ugly message being carried by the beautiful sound.
Islam marries religious ecstasy and sectarian hatred in a way that other religions do not. Secular liberals who worry more about “Islamophobia” than about the actual doctrine of Islam are guilty of a failure of empathy. They fail not just with respect to the experience of innocent Muslims who are treated like slaves and criminals by this religion, but with respect to the inner lives of its true believers.
Most secular people cannot begin to imagine what a (truly) devout Muslim feels. They are blind to the range of experiences that would cause an otherwise intelligent and psychologically healthy person to say, “I will happily die for this.” Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.