An Introduction to Sufism
A paper presented to
With minimal editing by Syed Mumtaz Ali, in deference to the learned author's gratuitous request and his kind remarks: "I am pleased and honoured that you consider this essay worthy of a wider audience. Please feel free to edit and/or add additional notes as you deem fit."
Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam based on the esoteric, or "inner-meaning" of its scripture, namely the Qur'an. 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, which says "from God we came, and to God shall we return," This "returning" is vital and central to the Sufi doctrine. Now, the Sufi embarks on a spiritual journey known as the Sufi Path; a path of devotion and love; which leads to none other than God Himself. I shall have more to say later on.
Origin and Background
The word "Sufi is derived from the Arabic word "suf," meaning "wool," Garments woven from wool were generally worn by early mystics, who came to be known as "Sufis," There are other explanations and meanings of the word Sufi but the one I have just given is generally accepted by most Sufis and Sufi scholars. Sufism is known in Arabic as "Tassawuf" or Islamic Mysticism. A Sufi is a mystic, if by "mystic" we mean a person who strives towards intimate knowledge or communion with God; through contemplation, meditation and or "inner-vision,"
The origin of Sufism goes back to the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, who received the divine Revelation known as the Qur'an, over a period of 23 years. As all Muslims know; that the Holy Qur'an is a "multi-layered revelation," whose verses can be interpreted literally, metaphorically, philosophically, and mystically.
The Prophet 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 only, by "word of mouth" from master to pupil or disciple. This oral tradition has continued from generation to generation to the present day. It is interesting to note that the "Sufi pledge" between a Sufi-master and his disciple is still an oral one. It was much later that Sufi teachings and practices were formally put down in writing for fixture generations.
The formative years of Sufism were between 620 to 1100 AD. It was during this time the Sufi masters known in Arabic as "Shaikhs," started to form the first Sufi fraternities. These early fraternities and indeed some individual Sufis met with great hostilities and resistance from certain sections of the Muslim community; on points of interpretation of Islamic Theology and Law. Some early Sufis were even persecuted on account of their mystical utterances and beliefs. The most famous Sufi-martyr was one AL HALLAJ of Basra in Iraq.
Nevertheless, individual Sufis achieved great eminence because of their piety and practices. The well-known among them are RABIA BASRI (a woman Sufi Teacher), JUNAID, IBRAHIM ADHEIM, and HASAN BASRI.
Perhaps the most notable one was the great theologian and philosopher AL GAZALLI who lived in Syria around 1100 AD. His famous treatises called the "Reconstruction of Religious Sciences," the "Alchemy of Happiness," and other works; set off to convince the Islamic world that Sufism and its teachings originated from the Qur'an and were compatible with mainstream Islamic thought and theology. It was AL-GAZALLI who bridged the gap between traditional and mystical Islam. It was around 1000 AD that the early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses, and poetry became the source of Sufi thinking and meditations.
Orders and Lodges
Around 1200 AD Sufism was institutionalized into Sufi orders. Generally, the political atmosphere from North Africa to India was "ripe" for the formation of Sufi orders. Under the patronage of kings and sultans prominent Sufi masters received financial grants to build lodges and hospices to house the master; his disciples, students, novices and even travellers. The lodges soon became schools of Sufi learning and scholarship. Attached to the lodges were other places of learning, such as colleges and universities; where students could learn Islamic law and theology, philosophy, and natural sciences.
The most prominent Sufi master of the day became the "founder" of a particular Sufi order. One of the well-known orders is the "Qhadriyya" founded by the great Sufi-master ABDUL QADIR GILANI in Iraq. Others were founded in different parts of the Islamic world by Sufi-masters such as JALALUDDIN RUMI in Turkey, SUHARWARDY in Asia minor, and MUINUDDIN CHISHTI in India. Although each order had a regional flavour, their basic teachings and practices remained fundamentally the same. Because of this, a mutual respect and admiration exists between various orders. Hence, a Sufi may belong to more than one order.
It was between 1200 - 1500 AD that Sufis and Sufism enjoyed a period of intense Sufi activity in various part of the Islamic world. Hence this period is considered as the "Classical Period" or the "Golden Age" of Sufism. Lodges and hospices soon became not only places to house Sufi students and novices but also places for "spiritual retreat" for practising Sufis and other mystics.
Some of the original orders, which I mentioned before, along with new ones are to be found in the Middle and Far East, India, Africa and various parts of Europe and North America. It is estimated, that presently, there are some 40 Sufi Orders in the world.
Rituals and Practices
Now, I should like to talk about the Sufi rituals and practices. It is rather difficult to summarize all the practices and rituals associated with the various orders. However, there are certain practices common to all the orders. They are:
1 Ritual prayer and fasting
according to Islamic injunctions.
The ritual of "initiation" into the order is ordained by the Sufi master of that particular order.
Aspiring novices had to undergo a period of intensive training in self-discipline, learning to control ones instincts and desires, guided by the Sufi-master. It was the master who would eventually decide if the novice was ready to be initiated into the order. The "initiation" was and still is a "solemn pledge" by the novice to obey the master implicitly in all matters, spiritual and moral. The master in turn pledges to instruct, teach and guide the "new initiate" along the Sufi path. The initiation really symbolizes that the initiate or disciple is now ready to understand the "inner truth" of spiritual realities. Realities which can only be experienced and understood by "intuitive knowledge," Knowledge which stems from the "heart," rather that the "mind,"
The practice of "dhikr" is the central feature in all Sufi orders. "Dhikr" is the Arabic word for the devotional practice of the "remembrance of God," It is performed by the repeated invocation of the Names and Attributes of God. It is based on the Qur'anic verse in which God says "Remember Me and I will remember you," The practice of "dhikr" may vary in different orders; but its ultimate object is to create spiritual awareness and love for God. It can be practiced individually, or collectively. Some orders perform it silently and some loudly; all under the direction of the Sufi master.
It should be noted that "dhikr" is not exclusive to the Sufis, it is practiced by all Muslims, as part of Islamic prayer and devotion.
Another important practice in Sufism is what is called "Sema," or "Sama' " which literally means "listening," These auditions may be a recitation from the Holy Qur'an, or devotional poetry. Throughout the centuries Sufi poets have written mystical poetry for devotional purposes; and some have even been set to music. Listening to musical concerts, as part of Sufi devotion is permitted and practiced by certain Sufi orders.
A Sufi Order known as the 'Mevlevi" Order founded by the Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi, who lived in Turkey around 1200 AD, permits a "mystical dance" known in the west as the dance of the Whirling Dervishes. To appreciate the significance of this dance, it is necessary to be aware of its symbolic interpretation and meaning.
Veneration of Sufi Saints is a common practice amongst Sufis. Devout Sufi masters who led highly devotional and spiritual lives were elevated to sainthood. The Sufis believe that a Sufi saint although dead for hundreds of years; can still make his "spiritual presence" felt to his disciples Hence, it is common practice among Sufis to visit tombs of Sufi saints to pay homage, recite Sura Fateha and/or other Quranic passages and pray to God for isa-e-thawab (i.e. praying to God that the rewards of such recitations be bestowed on the dead), and ask for the deceased saint's blessings. There is no formal procedure or official appointment or proclamation similar to the practices of other religions used for the canonisation of saints.
Other practices, include ritual prayer, fasting, and meditation, as directed by the master. Finally a Sufi may, under the strict guidance of his master, enter into a "spiritual retreat," for a fixed period (usually between 3 to 40 days, or for 24 hours) for intensive prayer and meditation, and daytime fasting. It is best to remember here that all these practices are to prepare the Snfi for the "spiritual journey" along the Sufi path; a path which leads towards God through love and devotion.
The Path - Its Teachings and Tenets
I shall now try to outline briefly some of the principal teachings and tenets of Sufism. The Sufi firmly believes that each individual spirit desires union with the Universal Spirit, namely God, after death. Furthermore, he believes that it is possible to "experience" God in this life! This kind of experience is described by Sufis as supra-sensory, ultra-mystical, and even "visionary," It must be emphasized here that this kind of "experience" has been achieved by only the elite! Nevertheless, this is the goal of every Sufi.
Sufism teaches that the Sufi who seeks God, must advance by slow "stages" along the Path. The "stages" relate to repentance, followed by abstinence, renunciation, 'poverty', patience and trust in God. These stages constitutes the ethical and ascetic disciplines of Sufism. Total commitment at each stage is vital towards the spiritual progress of the Sufi.
The individual soul is called "nafs" in Arabic. Sufism teaches that the soul initially is a "demanding soul," which can be and should be disciplined into a "contented soul," and subsequently into a "soul at peace," These characteristics of the soul are described at length in the Qur'an, and commented upon by Sufi teachers and scholars.
Sufism's primary teaching is based on the Unity of God called "tawheed" in Arabic. Its emphasis is on the "Oneness" and "Uniqueness" of God. This concept of Unity leads to the realization of Unity which embraces multiplicity in the Universe. This may sound paradoxical, but Sufi writers, and theologians (both classical and modern) have written volumes on this subject. With particular emphasis on explaining various aspects, or grades of manifestation, in terms of immanence and transcendence.
Sufis believe that God's earliest creation was the human "intellect." Giving humans the knowledge to discern, and to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. This knowledge in Sufism is raised to a higher level, which arises from the "heart" rather than the "mind." It is this intuitive knowledge that distinguishes a mystic from a philosopher. It is through the practice of intuitive knowledge that a Sufi experiences mystical phenomena and visions.
The central doctrine of Sufism, however is love, divine love. The Qur'an teaches that "God's mercy is greater than His wrath," and that "God's love is His supreme attribute." The Sufi does NOT reject but instead believes in the doctrine and the concepts of the 'Fear of God' and 'God's wrath of the Day of Judgement." The Sufi maintains that obedience to God's commands should ensue NOT out of the fear of punishment of Hellfire or for the desire of the pleasures and bounties of Paradise as a reward, but rather with the sincere motive and intention of attaining proximity to God - purely for the sake of, and solely for the pleasure of God. To the Sufi, Paradise (as a reward) and Hell (as a punishment) are but graphic terms to make us understand a state of things which is beyond all notions of our life in this world. The Sufi longs for what is beyond Paradise, the vision of God Himself - the ultimate reward after entering Paradise. And nothing would be lovelier than gazing upon the Lord when He removes his 'veil,' His 'garb of grandeur'! The Sufi attests that God has created man with a mind, free-will, and love. Therefore the mainspring of Sufism is love. Based on this; the Sufi path becomes a 'Path of Love,' where the Sufi becomes the 'lover' and God the 'beloved.' This love affair ends only with the ultimate union with the Beloved. This love relationship is depicted in most volumes of Sufi literature and poetry.
Sufi Literature and Poetry
As has been previously mentioned, earlier Sufism was based on an oral tradition, but around 1000 AD its teachings and doctrines were put into writing. For the next four centuries Sufi literature flourished in the form of manuals, mystical tales and anecdotes, treatises on Islamic theology, philosophy, metaphysics and mystical poetry.
Sufi manuals were for the instruction and practice of new "initiates," in various orders. They took a form of "master-disciple" instruction on correct behaviour and conduct within the order. They also dealt with strict "obedience" to the master, methods of "dhikr" and meditation, and also with piety and devotion to God. A famous classical manual is by IBN ARABI called, "Journey to the Lord of Power," which is a handbook on spiritual retreat.
Tales and anecdotes in the form of literature are really meant as "teaching tales," with the purpose of driving home a moral or mystical point. Some of the tales are elaborate and allegorical in their content. A classical example is ATTAR's "Conference of the Birds," and SA'DI's "The Rose Garden," and many others by Arabic and Persian authors and poets.
Classical Sufi treatises on the nature and essence of Sufism and Islamic theology were written by the famous Sufi philosopher AL GAZALLI, who lived in Damascus, Syria around 1100 AD. His famous work called "Reconstruction of Religious Sciences," and "Alchemy of Happiness"' are classic examples. Another Sufi master IBN ARABI, born in Spain around 1160 AD, is perhaps the most profound Sufi author of his time. Two of his famous works are called "Bezels of Wisdom," and"Meccan Revelations." They deal with theories on pantheism and monotheism, such as the theory that asserts that "God is Nature, and Nature God." The other theory differentiates God from Nature, by asserting that "God is above Nature, which He created." Yet other theories deal with the "Unity of Being," and the "wisdom of prophecy," and so on. Studies based on such works are still subjects for Sufi contemplation and meditation.
Sufi poetry is recited by Sufis to enhance mystical awareness. Such poetry written in the "classical era," were by Arabic poet IBN-AL-FARID, and persian poets such as HAFIZ, SA'DI, JAMI and RUMI. RUMI, perhaps is the best known in the West for his monumental poetic works called the "Masnavi" and "Divan-i-shams." Poetic imagery both symbolic and mystical, depicting the central themes, with which all Sufis are familiar with, are the "pangs of separation of the lover from the beloved," the "individual soul's" desire for mystical union with the "Universal soul," These are some of the important themes. Classical and modern Sufi poetry can be found from North Africa and Middle East, to India and Indonesia.
Sufi Music and Dance
The practice of music and dance in Sufism, is rather contentious. It is by no means universally accepted by all the Sufis, as some Sufi orders frown upon it. Others rejoice in the recitation of mystical poetry, accompanied by musical instruments, and performed as part of their prayer and devotion. Some Sufis consider such music conducive to "mystical ecstasy." These Sufis maintain that music can arouse passion - either sensual or spiritual. It is spiritual passion (longing for God) which is the Sufi's goal. Hence musical concerts are a regular feature of some Sufi orders.
The Sufi dance that is much talked about in the West, belongs to one Sufi order, founded by a Sufi master JALALUDDIN RUMI who lived around 1100 AD. This dance is known in the West as the dance of the "whirling dervishes." Actually, the dance is performed by the Sufis from that order, under strict and controlled conditions, led by a Sufi master. The "steps" and "motions" symbolically depict the "cosmos in motion."
There are two aspects of Sufism, one is called "practical Sufism," and the other "philosophical Sufism." One deals with the actual practice, while the other deals with 'the way' and how it is practiced. By way of analogy, it has been said that the "philosopher" looks at "water," and describes its properties, whereas the "Sufi," on the other hand, drinks it to quench his thirst.
Sufism was brought to the West within the last two hundred years by several western scholars, who were generally Christian missionaries. This gave a rather biased view of Sufism, which is now being corrected. Contemporary western scholars, now study Sufism within the framework of Islamic theology and tradition, and are therefore able to present it as "the mystical dimension of Islam." Some of the contemporary authors and scholars are FRITHJOF SCHUON, TITUS BURCKHARDT, MARTIN LINGS, S.H. NASR, and ANNEMARIE SCHIMMEL.
As previously mentioned, a "schism" exists today within the Islamic world. A certain section of Muslims believe that Sufi practices are too radical, a departure from the fundamental teachings and practices of Islam. This is debatable, and I do not propose to go into it here.
There are also two schools of thought within the Sufi community. One believes that Sufism is firmly entrenched in Islamic thought and tradition, and cannot be uprooted from Islam. The other school believes that the Sufi message is a "universal message," and therefore transcends any one religion. However, an overwhelming majority of practising Sufis belong to the first group. They maintain that the so-called "Sufism" of the second group is a mere misnomer and that it should really be designated as "mysticism" mainly because the word 'Sufi' has an essential Islamic connotation. It is obviously for this reason that genuine Sufism is correctly referred to as Islamic mysticism. In other words one must distinguish between genuine-Sufis and pseudo-Sufis who appear to have mushroomed in the very fertile land of California and other places such as Europe and even Asia.
I should like to conclude by summarising a Sufi as one who is a mystic, empowered by the Qur'an and the Prophet, guided by the Sufi master and Saints, and belongs to one of the many Sufi orders. In addition to ritual prayer and fasting, he practices various techniques of meditation. He recites poetry and delights in music all towards one goal, namely union with God, the divine beloved.
Finally it is said that Sufism
in the olden days was a "reality without a name," today it is a "name