The Reality of Revelation & Religious Experience | Part 8

These are transcripts of lessons on “Reality of Revelation and Religious Experience” delivered by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah once a week in 2021.

Lesson 8 – June 1st, 2021

Until now we have gone over five prominent interpretations of revelation. In the last two centuries, one prominent interpretation put forth by philosophers of religion and many contemporary Christian theologians is a religious experience. For example, Karl Barth (1886-1968) or Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) were two scholars of the last century who spoke about revelation as a religious experience, although the latter was perhaps less explicit about it. Nevertheless, this interpretation was held by a number of Christians theologians and eventually a number of Muslim scholars, the most prominent of them in current times being Abdulkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari.

Without understanding the meaning of religious experience we cannot understand its relationship with revelation. This is a very important discussion in modern times and so we will try to expand on it over the course of four phases.

Phase 1: Reasons for the Emergence of Religious Experience

Religious experience, at times also referred to as spiritual experience or sacred experience, is a well-established phenomenon amongst humans. Religious experience on its own is not a new thing, rather an interpretation of religion and religious texts through these religious experiences is a new phenomenon.

Psychologists and anthropologists have spent the last century describing how humans experience God in their day-to-day lives and what that means to them. These are not philosophical analyses of their experience itself, rather merely the impacts of it on the lives of humans who go through these experiences. These analyses eventually led to a contention, especially amongst philosophers of religion, and they began to believe: religion all together was nothing but a religious experience – at the core of religion, its substance is merely a human experience. They say the core of religion is not Allah, nor Prophet, nor religious texts, rather it is this experience and through it humans accept or reject different propositions. This constitutes a religion.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a very prominent German Reformed theologian and someone who expounded extensively on the concept of religious experience in the modern era. Although during his lifetime, he was not very popular or well-received, but after his death, his ideas were really popularized, specifically by the German philosopher Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). Otto came across the works of Schleiermacher and was surprised at the lack of attention paid to it.1 Thereafter Otto expounded greatly on the concept of religious experience.

A similar fate befell Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) as his ideas on existential philosophy were only taken seriously after his death. It was only until Karl Barth was exposed to his idea and later popularized them.

The question is, why did the concept of religious experience emerge during the 18th century and professed by Reformed Christian theologians and philosophers? There are at least four major reasons:

a) A lack of trust in natural and rational theology. This theology would rely on many Aristotelean ideas and concepts to defend religious beliefs. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was perhaps one of the greatest Christian theologians who was a proponent of natural theology. These philosophers and theologians would argue there were certain religious beliefs that cannot be explained by nature or rationality, and people simply have to have faith in them.

However, due to the changes between 15th and 19th century, Western scholars critiqued natural theology very severely and they lost trust in its ability to justify religious beliefs. Philosophers such as David Hume (1711-1776) critiqued these ideas extensively and had a great impact on later scholars like Kant and Schleiermacher.

It was these critiques that led some scholars to offer a solution. In response, they presented an alternative way to explaining and justifying religious beliefs, and that was religious experience.

b) Conflict between religion and science. This topic has a very lengthy history in West, and scholars like Schleiermacher realized science is gradually exposing a lot of religious beliefs to be incorrect and if this continues there will be nothing left of religion. They attempted to offer a solution that would resolve these tensions between religion and science, and one of those solutions was to say religion has nothing to do with science to begin with for there to be conflict, rather religion is merely a personal experience.

c) Biblical criticism, which can be traced back to the time of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). By the 19th century, these textual criticisms only reached their height. These criticisms would ask questions such as whether Jesus even existed, who wrote the books, who were the scribes, did Moses as described in these Holy Books even exist etc.

As a solution to these questions, some religious scholars proposed the idea that these Holy Book are not a central part of religion. They argued that the Holy Books are merely one variable that helps with religious experience, but they are not the end-all.

d) Confronting Kantian critiques on the relationship between religion and ethics. Kant placed religion within ethics, that had nothing to do with any other aspect of life. In other words, religion only has a utilitarian purpose that allows people to behave properly with one another and does not say anything about the truth of the beliefs held by religious people.

In response to this, scholars like Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard argued religion is beyond and above ethics, and that is due to religion’s core being summarized in one’s direct religious experience.

Phase 2: Concept of “Religious Experience”

The phrase “religious experience” is made up of two words. The word “experience” in this phrase had a different meaning before 17th century and another meaning after 17th century. Before 17th century, the word “experience” implied some sort of physical activity. For example, a person may have said: ‘I experienced driving’, which means a person sat in a car and drove around town.

After 17th century a new meaning was given to it in philosophical discourse. In its new meaning, the word “experience” signified an effect and influence on a person. In other words, before the 17th century we would carry out an act and the entities around us would be affected and influenced. However, after 17th century external entities left their impact on us and we would be influenced by them.

To illustrate with an example: Someone may wake up in the morning and look outside their window and observe the sunrise. This person may say, “I experienced sunrise”, but this does not mean they did something to the sun, rather they were impacted by the motion of the sun. Perhaps they felt happiness, hope, serenity, etc. and this is what it means to “experience sunrise”. This meaning can be applied on many other scenarios, such as “experiencing charity”, “experiencing hospitality” etc. and all of these experiences imply a change of state or evoking of a feeling in a person.

So far we are only explaining certain basic changes in the meaning of the word experience. Note, so far we have not addressed the question of whether this “experience” actually gives one true knowledge which is in accordance with reality. In fact, many will argue that it does not, but when we later speak about the religious experience of mystics, we will see how their experiences are purported to have epistemic value and are truthful.

These religious experiences are free from any form of argumentation, syllogism, they are particular to individuals. This is applicable even to Prophets – as per this interpretation and definition – as they do not experience what we experience and we do not experience what they experience. One can see how in this worldview it is very easy to limit religion into a very personal and individualistic matter that has no relation with society and politics.

The post-17th century definition also allows for one’s religious experience to be inclusive of experiences that are purely empirical and as well as other types that relate to one’s experience of beauty or ethics. Further, those who go through these experiences can claim to have had them through mystical visions, or inspired by a specific religion, or in fact, these individuals could even hold a secular worldview and still claim to have had a religious experience as per the latter definition.

Nevertheless, two famous definitions given for religious experience, particularly by philosophers of religion, are as follows:

1. Religious experience is when one experiences Allah or God the Father (in Christianity).

2. Religious experience is when a person experiences a sacred and transcendental entity. This definition does not say whether the sacred and transcendental entity is God, rather they leave it open – it could even be some other unseeable entity or even a material entity like a tree through which they may experience the transcendental.

In the next lesson, we will expand on this discussion further and speak of different schools of thought when it comes to religious experience. After we have explained this, we will return back to our main discussion and explain how religious experience has been used to interpret the phenomenon of revelation, and what are the critiques on it.


  1. For those interested in learning more about Rudolf Otto, the well-known Iranian teacher of philosophy Alī Shīrwānī has written a work on it in Persian, which was later translated by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah in Arabic as الأسس النظرية للتجربة الدينية – قراءة نقديّة مقارنة لآراء ابن عربي ورودلف أتو