Considering Psychedelics from Islamic Standpoints: Some Cursory Reflections
The following is an excerpt from an email exchange with a colleague a few months back. We were discussing recent psychedelic research and the intersection of religion, spirituality, and entheogens—a web of connections which have played a prominent role since the beginning of psychedelic science in the 20th century. The famous scholar of religions Huston Smith raised many important questions regarding the relationship between theology (and religion more broadly) and psychedelic experiences in his essay “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?” The subsequent era prohibition meant that Smith’s questions were relegated to controversy and obscurity for some time, though our contemporary “psychedelic renaissance” is forcing theologians and other religious authorities to return to this (re)emerging field of science, medicine, and spirituality.
These are interesting questions in the context of Islamic traditions, where the topic of psychedelics has yet to penetrate into the mainstream, though there are a few notable exceptions.
A while back a Shi’i Ayatollah issued a religious ruling that psychedelics are permissible though I’ve yet to hear of serious impact from this ruling. In Sunnism, legal authority is less hierarchical and more diffuse in general, but as of yet I haven’t heard of any big name scholars really deal with the topic — at least not coming from a place of knowledge re: the scientific literature of the past few decades.
However, I am hopeful. Islam is known for its prohibition of alcohol, so many might think psychedelics are immediately off the table, but outside of the literalism of certain modern puritanical sects, traditional Islamic legal schools have rather advanced methodologies for considering various topics. Relevant here are the maqāṣid al-sharīʿa — the aims or objectives of divine law — which are typically divided into five categories: life, religion, cognitive faculties, property, and family. All of these are things which the law — through its concrete manifestation in particular rulings from qualified scholars — should seek to preserve or contribute to in a positive manner. So beyond the specific pronouncements of sacred sources, these are some more big picture concerns jurists take into account when working on a ruling for a given topic.
To my knowledge, psychoactive substances have typically been classified as haram or makruh (disliked/discouraged) because of either a physiological harm (negatively impacting the domain of life) or because of an intoxicating effect (negatively impacting the cognitive faculties), but considering psychedelics along these two dimensions I see little reason for their prohibition. However, in order to come to these conclusions, jurists would need to either have their own psychedelic experiences or read quite a bit into the scientific literature — ideally both. We’re probably a long way out from that still.
Beyond the legal issues, Islam certainly has rich resources for interfacing with psychedelic experience. The Qur’an speaks often of “the unseen” (al-ghayb) and various celestial and spiritual beings. Sufi authors, often influenced by Neoplatonism, have sophisticated accounts of “the imaginal realm” (‘ālam al-mithāl) that I personally find incredibly helpful in interpreting phenomena such as autonomous entities and the symbolic content often encountered during psychedelic experiences.
Sometime in the future I hope to do some work creating a framework for psychedelic experience out of the 20th century Islamic philosopher Henry Corbin’s theology of imagination, as his work seems to lend itself to this task more than any other thinker I’ve personally encountered. Corbin was an eclectic figure in the Eranos circle along with Carl Jung (whose work has been taken as an important intellectual and spiritual source in psychedelic philosophy) and others. He weaves together quite an array of Western and Islamic sources in his work, allowing his philosophy to be used as an important cross-cultural bridge in this space.
Of course, Henry Corbin need not be the only important thinker for an Islamic psychedelic philosophy. Turning instead to the Sufi and Shi’i mystical authors Corbin himself cites—masters such as Ibn ‘Arabi and Suhrawardi—certainly presents another fruitful approach, and one which may prove more compelling for Muslim audiences due to the more endogenous sources.
Other fruitful research projects may revolve around comparative mystical phenomenology between accounts of Islamic visionary experiences and psychedelic-induced peak experiences.
Regardless, as it currently stands this discourse is tragically underdeveloped. May the academics, philosophers, and religious authorities who attempt to further explore the intersection of Islam and psychedelics have a positive impact and allow for better understanding and engagement in this domain.