Sufism: Islamic Spirituality and Mysticism
Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi
Elements of spirituality and mysticism are found in all major world religions. Spirituality encompasses the pursuit of good character, the struggle against evil and bad personal characteristics, and the development of a better society. It is important for improving our day to day lives and our interactions as citizens within society. Within spirituality, mysticism is the contemplation of the universal truths that transcend religion and relate to the heavenly realms and the ethereal. Both enrich our lives, and make us better people. They also help build bridges of understanding across different faiths to grapple with today’s contemporary challenges.
Islam conceives of man possessing both corporeal and spiritual dimensions. At the very core of Islamic belief is the development of the spirit and its relationship to God. The spiritual dimension of Islam is manifested in Islamic mysticism or Sufism. Sufism is the science of unlocking esoteric meanings of the faith, and engaging in a process of self-purification and self-realization.
It is difficult to precisely define Sufism because there is no single, systematic approach to Sufi teachings, and only a few of its metaphysical teachings can be communicated in words. It has been defined by its adherents as the essence or fruit of Islam, the path inwards towards purification of the self, and the vehicle through which one can develop their relationship with God. Its etymology is equally enigmatic. Sufism is derived from the Arabic word, Tasawwuf, literally, “the process of becoming a Sufi.” The word Sufi been linked to the Ahl-i Suffa, the devotees who worshipped in the veranda of the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); to the Arabic words suf, the traditional wool worn by ascetic mystics, or safa, meaning “purity”; as well as to the Greek Sophos, meaning “wisdom.” Each of these potential derivations indicates important aspects of what Sufism is. In Islamic tradition, the term Sufi generally refers to believers who have embarked upon the mystical path.
The Role of Sufism within Islam
Today, the term Sufism invokes images of whirling dervishes in Turkey, illuminated Persian poetry, and colorful celebrations at saints’ shrines across South Asia. Although numerous practices and traditions have emerged over time, Sufism has always existed as an integral component of Islam.
Recently, Islamist fundamentalists have attempted to separate Sufism from Islam as part of an effort to discredit the majority of Muslim ummah, or worldwide Muslim community, who practice Sufism. Prior to the nineteenth century however, Sufism was never a controversial subject, nor was it ever separated from the texture of Islamic religious life. According to Carl Ernst, nineteenth century Orientalist scholars were responsible for treating Sufism as an “ism” or an innovative school of thought based on other non-Islamic religious and spiritual traditions. Contrary to these misperceptions, Sufism is grounded in Islamic law, beliefs and practices.
Sufi thought and practices are based on the Quran, hadith (the recorded acts and the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)) and the sunnah, (examples from the life of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions). The following hadith narrated by Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions and second Muslim ruler after his death, in particular illustrates the role of spirituality and Sufism within Islam:
As we sat one day with the Messenger of Allah (may peace and blessings be upon him and his family), a man in pure white clothing and jet black hair came to us, without a trace of travelling upon him, though none of us knew him. He sat down before the Prophet bracing his knees against his, resting his hands on his legs, and said: “Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allah said: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and to perform the prayer, give alms, fast in the month of Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House (the Kaaba in Mecca) if you can find a way.”
He said: “You have spoken the truth,” and we were surprised that he should ask and then confirm the answer. Then he said, “Tell me about true faith (iman).” The Prophet answered: “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His inspired Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and in destiny, its good and evil.”
“You have spoken the truth,” he said, “Now tell me about that which is beautiful; the perfection of faith (ihsan),” and the Prophet answered: “It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.”
Then the visitor left. I waited a long while, and the Prophet said to me, “Do you know, ‘Umar, who was the questioner?” and I replied, “Allah and His messenger know best.”
He said, “It was Archangel Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion”
This story delineates the three key principles of the Islamic faith: Islam, iman and ihsan. The first, Islam, includes the “five pillars of the religion.” These rituals are designed to discipline the body to perform outward practices of faith. The second, iman, includes the “six pillars of belief,” intended to discipline the mind. The third, ihsan, is meant to develop the soul by inculcating God-consciousness in every aspect of life. Sufis believe that God-consciousness ultimately allows Muslims to pursue spirituality and mysticism.
There are a number of beliefs and practices that develop God-consciousness. These practices include supererogatory worship, meditative seclusion, the pursuit of knowledge, and meditation (dhikr Allah). Through such practices, particularly devotion to and remembrance of God, the worshipper’s attention turns from his or her self towards God.
The following sacred conversation between God and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) describes the importance of these practices for Sufis. It demonstrates how the individual worshipper can become increasingly close to God through continued devotion and love:
“My servant draws near to me through nothing I love more than the religious duty I require of him. And my servant continues to draw near to me by supererogatory worship until I love him When I love him, I become the ear by which he hears, the eye by which he sees, the hand by which he grasps and the foot by which he walks. If he asks me for something, I give it to him; if he seeks protection, I provide it to him.” (Bukhari)
This love for the divine is commonly expressed through poetry, music and dance (sama). The best-known form of sama are the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Sufi Order, named after the great saint and poet Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. Enraptured in the remembrance of God, the dervishes spin along to the ethereal music of the flute, with one hand outstretched toward the heaven to receive blessings and the other turned towards the earth to transmit them.
Those on the Sufi path often seek a Shaykh, or a teacher to guide them through practices and spiritual tests. Sufis believe that our hearts are veiled by worldly desires and illusions. The goal is to eliminate all of the 70,000 veils between the individual and God. With each test, the disciple arrives at different stages of spiritual development where the ego is reduced, bad habits are checked, veils are lifted from hearts, and virtues or powers of subtle perception and knowledge of the divine are acquired. By reducing the presence of the self, Sufis aspire to maintain continuous God-consciousness.
Sufism & Interfaith
The transformation described above is often called the journey to the heart. It is a process by which the heart and soul are transformed by God’s divine attributes. 99 of these attributes (including Compassion, Love, and Kindness) are enumerated in the Quran. Over time, the disciple’s love for God extends to the whole creation. Once the realm of the spiritual transcends the realm of the physical, the apparent differences between humanity, religion and society cease and the disciple begins to indiscriminately see God’s beauty, His goodness, and His attributes in everyone. In essence, the Sufi begins to celebrate and accept – not just tolerate – humanity’s differences.
Sufi poetry, music, and art are major outlets for expressing love for Creation. The famous Sufi master and poet of the thirteenth century, Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi once said,
O Muslims, what do I have to say? I do not know myself whether I am a Christian, a Jew, a Zoroastrian or a Muslim. And I do not know myself if I am eastern or western, upper or lower. And I do not know myself if I am from earth or I am from on high. And I do not know myself if I am Indian, Chinese, Bulgarian, Iraqi or Khorasani. I do not know myself if I even have an appearance or not, whether I have existence or not, if have a location or not. I do not know myself if I am a body or a soul. But what I do know is that my soul is the soul of souls. When I put my name with my Lord’s, I saw the universe as one. I see One, I sing One, I know One and I read One.”
As the quote above illustrates, Sufis do not limit the attainment of the divine to any religious or social group. The renowned Naqshbandi Sufi saint Bayazid al-Bistami said, “Sufis, in general, seek God’s mercy for everyone, not solely for Muslims.” This principle of universal love is perhaps one reason why Rumi has been the bestselling poet in America.
Throughout history, Sufi guides have had disciples from different faiths. Even today, across the world people of all faiths conduct pilgrimages to the shrines of Sufi Shaykhs in honor of their messages of compassion and love for all of humanity. For example, the annual celebration in Ajmer, India of the great South Asian saint, Mu’in al-Din Chishti draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims of all faith traditions including Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. These shrines also serve as centers for visitation, seclusion, healing, and the transmission of baraka, or divine blessings.
Sufism as a Means to Advance Interfaith Relations
By cultivating respect and love for humanity, Islamic spirituality and mysticism foster a sense of collective responsibility and social wellbeing for all. For Sufis, it is imperative to go beyond “doing onto others as you would like others to do onto you,” by sacrificing one’s own interests for that of others. As a result, since the early days of Islam, Sufis have established social welfare institutions and centers in economically disadvantaged areas. According to Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, “It was through institutions designed not only to serve the destitute, the homeless and the ill — but whose overall purpose was to redirect the society as a whole to the goal of uplifting the people spiritually, psychologically, morally and physically — that the Sufis were able to have an immense impact on the societies in which they functioned.”
This call to social welfare can be used to advance relations between faiths. In Africa, for example, Sufi orders such as the Shadiliyya and the Sanusiyya orders have been particularly active in providing education, community-building and human resource development between disparate communities. The guest houses and hostels created by the Sufi orders became points of convergence, bringing together different races and ethnicities, and even promoting interracial and inter-tribal marriages. In part, this helped prevent wars and created intellectual and economic opportunities by introducing science, business, trade, education, medicine, the arts and administrative job opportunities for people. According to Shaykh Kabbani, “This was in keeping with the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who, upon his emigration to Medina, built the “model city,” in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians and idol-worshippers were able to live together in a spirit of goodness, tolerance and cooperation – a reality not unlike that of modern, democratic societies.”
Sharing and Celebrating Spirituality across Different Faiths
There are a number of practices of spirituality and mysticism that can be shared and borrowed across different faiths. For example, several mystical traditions observe some form of meditation. Sufi meditation or dhikr Allah, takes the seeker to travel from this world of illustion to the Divine Presence. It can involve several components including constantly striving to be mindful of God, a repition or invocation of a mystical formula or divine name, or a temporary state (hal) in which awareness of God overwhelms us, and we are divorced of all worldly concerns. Breathing exercises which form the core of most mystical excercises can be shared across faith traditions.
Fasting is another practice in almost all religions and spiritual traditions. Fasting is intended to control one’s physical desires, diminish the ego and become more God-conscious. Fasting in Islam is carried out in the month of Ramadan during which Muslims abstain from food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset each day for one lunar month. The Prohpet Muhammad (PBUH) used to fast for days or weeks at a time throughout the year. This practice is still carried out by many ascetic Sufis.
Spiritual retreats or seclusion are another common practice in mystical traditions. Seclusion is a time to practice the remembrance of the divine. Some faiths model seclusion practices after Prophet Moses’ retreat on Mount Sinai. Similarly, many Sufis practice a forty-day meditative seclusion, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his seclusion in the cave of Mount Hira.
Spiritual healing is another spiritual practice that is shared across faiths. The lata’if , or the Nine Points of the self, are related to the chakras of Kundalini Yoga, which is a central part of both Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, and to the nodes of the Tree of Life, a key concept in Jewish Kabalistic spirituality. The lata’if are points of maximum energy intake and are instrumental in maintaining the body’s energy balance. Sufis believe that illnesses can be treated by activating the appropriate lateefa.
Artistic expressions of spirituality can also be shared and borrowed across faiths. Islamic traditions of geometric arts, and caligraphy are immensely popular, along with devotional music and dance or sacred movement. As described above, poetry can also unite people from different faiths under universal themes of love and peace. Kabir is another example a Muslim poet who has had profound influence on Muslim, Hindu and Sikh worship.
- What is the history of shared spirituality? How did major philosophers influence other faith traditions? To what degree did philosophers and mystics share ideas and partake in similar practices?
- What are the common virtues, values, and guiding principles that are shared between faiths that can be used to mediate social conflict?
- How can we create transnational spiritual linkages to address social concerns?
- How can spirituality and mysticism humanize “the other?”
 James Fadiman and Robert Frager, Essential Sufism, Harper Collins: New York, 1997
 Carl Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, Shambhala: Boston and London, 1997, page 21.
 Hereafter denoted as “PBUH.”
 Sufism: The Alchemy of the Heart, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993, page 17.
 Carl Ernst, “Preface,” in The Classics of Western Spirituality, edited by Michael Sells, Paulist Press: New York, 1996, page 3.
 Shams Tabriz, Diwan, (translated by R. A. Nicholson), p. 344.
 Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, “The Sufis: Enlightened Community Builders,” The Islamic Supreme Council of America, http://www.islamicsupremecouncil.org/understanding-islam/spirituality/2-the-sufis-enlightened-community-builders.html