Non-Muslims (and some Muslims) often mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam. Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam. Sufi Tariqas can be found in Sunni, Shi’a and other Islamic groups. Ibn Khaldun the 14th Century Arab historian described Sufism as: “… dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.”
Islamic asceticism flourished in the first century since the advent of Islam and developed into schools of thought, firmly rooted in the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Shari’a or Islamic law.
Its scholars became known as the Sufis because of their loyalty, sincerity, and purity of heart.
One of the meanings of the word “sufa” in Arabic is purity. There are two other meanings including Ahl Suffa translated as “the people of the bench” for which a verse in the Quran was revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) advising him not to ignore the people who sat outside his home remembering their Lord and showing great sincerity towards Him and His message.
The third interpretation of the word Sufi refers to a wool fabric worn by these ascethetics. Some of the most famous early Sufi scholars include the great leaders of the Sunni four schools of thought known as Imam Malik, Imam Abu Hanifa, Shafi’i and Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal – These are also known as the four great Imams of Ijtihad and from whom we have the four schools of Fiqh (Law).
Doctrinally, the practice of Sufism is the pursuit of moral excellence. It is founded in the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH) where Angel Gabriel asked him what is Islam? The Prophet (PBUH) explained that Islam must be understood in three stages:-
• First is Islam or the physical rules of the religion, which includes the Sunni four schools of thought, and the Shiites.
• Second is Iman or belief in the unseen including all Prophets, angels, the holy books and the Day of Judgment.
• Third is the state of Ihsan or perfection where the believer must worship his Lord as if he sees Him and knowing that he cannot, must know that his Lord is always seeing him.
This third stage has developed its own set of rules and practices that have been known throughout Islamic history as “taskiyyat nafs” or purification of the self. The teachers of this discipline of purification organized their students into what is now known as Sufi Orders and are named after the Shaykh who had the most influence on their theology and development.
So the most important thing to understand from this history of Sufism is not only is it an integral part of Islam itself but it has existed since the early time of the Prophet (PBUH).
The Muslim who chooses to follow the third level of Islam must first accept the first two levels and cannot be considered a Sufi without having first understood the rules of shari’a and of faith. Some practices commonly associated with people who observe Sufism:
• Taking initiation with a Shaykh or guide: the early teachings of the great scholars of Islam required that any believer who wanted to learn how to be someone who is “God conscious” at all times, they must seek a teacher who has succeeded in this journey already and who displays the qualities of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who Muslims believe to be of Perfect character. As a result of their devotion, their followers and community members often consider them holy and enlightened. For this same reason, Islamists are able to scare believers into avoiding a guide by accusing them of making shirk or “ascribing partners to God”. Sufism is an apprenticeship just like many other disciplines such as Buddhism or the martial arts, and the teacher or Shaykh as he or she is known, is a central source of the knowledge for the students.
Since early times, it was important to find a living Shaykh who could trace his lineage of knowledge all the way back to the time of the Prophet (PBUH) ensuring that they were still connected to the Divine inspirations. The old educational structure- there were no modern degrees, students would gather around the boarding schools and learn Islam then go back to their own communities to teach Islam.
• How to achieve God consciousness: The student or seeker as he/she is known goes about their daily life and rituals in what outwardly appears to be like any other person, however internally they struggle to display character traits associated with Divine Attributes. It is a dual practice of controlling bad desires or negative traits of the ego such as oppression, anger, greediness, or cruelty on the one hand, and showing the greater qualities of an aware and compassionate ego on the other. Ultimately the goal of Sufi master is that if all his students focus their energy inward so they become of perfect character and embody qualities such as compassion, mercy, justice and tolerance. The natural consequence of that would be a society as a whole that is at peace and will also be blessed by God for its piety and sincerity.
• It is basically the science of destroying the aggression or animal qualities of all human beings by concentrating inward rather than outward. That is why the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) after returning to Makkah told his companion we have left the lesser jihad [or the jihad of combat] for the great jihad, which was the struggle against the self. The central concept in Sufism is love. Dervishes / Mureeds —the names given to initiates of Sufi orders— believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. They believe that God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God looks at himself within the dynamics of nature. This is substantiated using the famous Hadith Qudsi (extra-Qur’anic utterance of God): “I was a hidden treasure, and I wanted to be known, so I created Creation.”
Since they believe that everything is a reflection of God, Sufis try to see the beauty inside the apparently ugly, and to open arms even to what is considered the most evil one. The Sufi conception of divine love is not restricted to what the term “love of God” implies; it also includes human love with a perspective that views everything a manifestation of God. The central doctrine of Sufism, sometimes called Wahdat or Unity, is the Sufi understanding of Tawhid.
Put very simply Tawhid states that all phenomena are manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud (being), this is indeed al-Haq (Truth, God). The essence of being/Truth/God is devoid of every form and quality, and hence unmanifest, yet it is inseparable from every form and phenomenon either material or spiritual. It is often understood to imply that every phenomenon is an aspect of Truth and at the same time attribution of existence to it is false. The chief aim of all Sufis then is to let go of all notions of duality (and therefore of the individual self also), and realize the divine unity which is considered to be the truth.
Historically, the practice of Sufism and this focus inward led to great tolerance and flexibility in the practices of Muslims around the world. It led to great achievements in art, poetry and literature since the Sufis spent so much time in contemplation of love for their Creator and spirituality (for example Rumi, Omar Khayyám and Al-Ghazali’s influence extended beyond Muslim lands to be quoted by Western philosophers, writers and theologians.)
However, the 20th century brought a new wave of thought in the Muslim world as it sought to unify the Muslims into a political force against Europe and the US. This new ideology commonly referred as Wahabbism or Salafism was described to believers as an attempt to purify the practices of Muslims around the world from the practices of Sufism and traditional Islam. Because its success depended on its attempt to create a homogenous force it was essential for them to obliterate the practices that were the source of the tolerance and pluralism around the Muslim world.
Article text without illustrations originally published by SPIRIT themag, July 2006. Republished with permission.