2.M.2d From a Contemporary Sufi Master: The Way, presented by Muhammad Suheyl Umar


The hallmark of the divine image in which human beings were created is the intelligence that sets them apart from all other creatures. Turning to God– remembrance– awakens awareness of God in the heart and actualises the divine image latent in the soul. Ultimate felicity is nothing but the remembrance of the wellspring of our own true nature, and that is God Himself; or, it is the realization of genuine human character traits, which are the traces of God’s names. What then is the “Way” to the development of the human personality; in other words the method that provides the practical means to actualise the image of God within ourselves.

We can start with the idea that the Way is essentially:

  • Discernment between the Real and the illusory, and
  • Concentration upon the Real,

The question has to be answered: how to fix in duration this concentration upon the Real?

To be able to fix concentration in duration, we have need essentially of:

  • Effort, which is of the will and proceeds from without;
  • Comprehension, which is of the intelligence and proceeds from within.

The result of the persevering practice of effort is the mental art, the technique of concentration. One must subdue the soul, break its natural resistance, and acquire salutary mental habits.

The result of the persevering practice of comprehension–  by meditation– is the inward transformation of the imagination or the subconscious, the acquisition of reflexes that conform to spiritual reality. It is all very well for the intelligence to affirm metaphysical or eschatological truths; the imagination– or the subconscious– none the less continues to believe firmly in the world, not in God or the next world; every man is a priori hypocritical. The Way is precisely the passage from natural hypocrisy to spiritual sincerity.

One must replace the habitual and involuntary dreaming of the soul by the remembrance of God; one must repose in this remembrance and not in dreams. It is thus that a bird flying reposes in limitlessness and not in heaviness; it is a repose heavenwards, not earthwards. One must replace natural and passional repose with a repose that is supernatural and contemplative.

But the fixing of concentration in duration—and the attainment of the mental art and the transformation of the imagination—is only possible with the help of grace توفيق; the intelligence and the will, alone and unaided, are not enough. Now the conditions sine qua non for grace are the following:

  • the rites الشرع و الورد
  • the virtues الفضائل

One must perform the rites as perfectly as possible.

The virtues are essentially; spiritual poverty, generosity, intrinsic sincerity, or; humility, charity, veracity, hence logic and impartiality.

The rites refer to man as such and the collectivity, while the virtues refer to each particular man and so to the individual as such. There must be a collective and normative religion, but there must likewise be what might be called a personal religion, namely the spiritual manifestation, not of man or humanity, but of a particular man with his helplessness and his seeds of immortality.

Last but not least, there is always a presence in the soul. The most ordinary presence is that of the world, to the exclusion, alas, of that of God. The presence of the world always implies that of the “I”, but sometimes the presence of the “I” is even stronger than that of the world, to the point of occupying the entire space of the soul.

What is the Remembrance of God? It is to offer the space of our soul to the Divine Presence, by means, precisely, of the Name of God. To allow God to enter into our space, in order that God may allow us to enter into His space; to welcome Him here below, in order that He may welcome us in the Hereafter, and in a certain manner already in the here below.

It depends on man what he makes of the present moment; polishes the mirror and develops his personality by following the Way or let the present moment pass him by, so that the Buddhists could say, ‘Get ye across this stretching mire, let not the moment pass, for they shall mourn whose moment’s past’.


I would record two basic insights that inform our perspective on spiritual life. The first pertains to the human condition and the second to the way humans relate themselves to the Infinite.

1) The basic question is “What does it mean to be human?”[1] What is a human being? A body? Certainly, but anything else? A personality that includes mind, memories, and propensities that have derived from a unique trajectory of life-experiences? This, too, but anything more? Some say no, but religion, and of course, all spiritualities, disagree. Underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted, and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss. This infinite center of every life, this hidden self, is no less than the Godhead. Body, personality, and this infinite center– a human self[2] is not completely accounted for until all three are noted. That is not only our fundamental position; it is the shared “anthropocosmic” vision of all wisdom traditions of the world and all great wisdom traditions of mankind remain our most resourceful guides to the Infinite. We recognize that this hidden Self, the Infinite within, is called by many names but all point to a single Reality. Hindus call it Brahman that is “End of all love-longing.”[3], vouchsafing the “unshakeable deliverance of the heart”[4] in Buddhism which Christianity terms as “Beauty so ancient and so new,”[5] For the Jews it is “Eternal”[6] which, in Islam, it is “closer to us than our jugular veins.”[7] Question could be asked that if this is true and we really are infinite in our being, why is this not apparent? Why do we not act accordingly? The answer lies in the depth at which the Eternal is buried under the almost impenetrable mass of distractions, false assumptions, and self-regarding instincts that comprise our surface selves and prevent us from realizing true universality. A lamp can be covered with dust and dirt to the point of obscuring its light completely. The problem life poses for the human self is to cleanse the dross of its being to the point where its infinite center can shine forth in full display and transcendence comes into sharp focus.

2) C. G. Jung once wrote, “The telling question of a person’s life is whether or not [she or] he is related to the Infinite.”[8] There are, however, different ways, and more importantly, degrees in which the human person relates to the Infinite.Islamic worldview, informed by its basic texts, looks at this distinction in terms of those whose aspirations stop short at the legal minimum requirements for saving their souls (salvation النجاۃ) and those who aspire after sanctification (قُرب\تقرّب) in this world and Presence of God in the posthumous/final state the human subject. The same point could be made in a less faith specific language in the following manner.

Religiously, people tend to fall into two categories. Some find the meaning they seek in religious forms– commandments, observances, and texts straightforwardly, largely literally interpreted– while others, without bypassing or abandoning these, sense their provisional character and reach out for meanings that the forms contain but which cannot be equated with those forms. If we call the first type of person exoteric, out of his or her concern for meanings that attach to outward or manifest forms, the second type that is drawn to the meanings that underlie those forms conveniently designated esoteric.

Both types turn up in all the historical religions and very likely in tribal ones as well, but nowhere does the difference surface quite as clearly as in Islam. Exoterically, outwardly, and explicitly– Islam is the sharī‘a, a revealed, canonical law by which the faithful should live. Concomitantly, though, the Qur’ān and the Hadith, or authoritative Traditions that were instituted by the Prophet Muhammad, abound in references, frequently veiled, to profound, metaphysical truths which the forms of Islam enfold and protect in the way husks protect and conceal their kernels. Esoterics see these references as invitations to search out those deeper truths and make them the centre of their lives. At their best, Sufi orders are associations of such esoterics that epitomize Spiritual Life in Islam. The underlying premise of our perspective is that rather than an obstacle to a progressive Islamic social consciousness, Islamic spirituality is the necessary ground for all religiously directed action.[9]

Video: scroll down until underneath the ‘Notes and References’, or click here.

Notes and References

[1] See Muslim, Birr, 115; Bukhārī, Isti’dhān 1.

[2] Let us see what does this Divine form imply. To put the issue in its larger perspective first of all one has to take into consideration the immense variety of creation and the special position that the human beings hold in the hierarchy of manifestation.

God produces an inconceivably enormous cosmos with an infinite diversity of created things. If we investigate the creatures one by one the task can never be completed but if we speak in general terms, it is possible to classify created things into categories. The cosmos can be divided into two basic worlds, the unseen and the visible, sometimes referred to as “the heavens and the earth”, or “the spiritual world and the bodily world.” We have mentioned during our discussions that there is a third world that is both similar to and different from these two basic worlds, called the “world of imagination”. If these three worlds represent the general structure of the total macrocosm, the human being can be called a microcosm, since three parallel domains are found within each individual: spirit, soul, and body.

When we want to look at other bodily creatures; that is, those physical things that fill the visible universe we find inanimate objects, plants, and animals. What is interesting for our purposes is how these three kinds of creature manifest the signs of God; the divine attributes that become visible through them. Which attributes become visible in inanimate objects? Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to say that more than anything else, inanimate objects conceal God’s attributes instead of revealing them. They tell us what God is not rather than what He is.

In contrast to inanimate things, plants display several obvious divine attributes. It is easy to see that plants are alive, and life is the first of the “Seven Leaders”, the seven divine attributes that predominate in creation. Plants have certain knowledge. They certainly have desire: they want water, sunlight, fertilizer, and they trace elements. If you treat them well and give them what they really desire– like nice, rich manure– they even show their gratitude by producing enormous crops; they are not ungrateful truth-concealers. Plants have power and can destroy stones and concrete, but they need time. But all these divine attributes are found rather feebly within plants, so tanzīh outweighs tashbīh.

In contrast, the divine attributes found in animals are much more intense. Moreover, animals add other attributes that are difficult to find in plants. The knowledge possessed by animals can be extraordinary, though it is always rather specialized. Bees can tell their hive-mates exactly where to find the best honey, but they don’t know much about vinegar. Monarch butterflies know the precise location of their valley in Mexico, but they cannot be trusted to take you to New York City. The animal kingdom represents an incredible diversity of knowledge and skills, divided among a vast number of specialized organisms. Desire is also clearly present in animals, but each species desires different things, and thus a great natural harmony is created where, as Rumi puts it, “Everything is both eater and eaten.”

Both plants and animals represent a tremendous variety of specific signs. Each plant or animal species is a special configuration of divine attributes that is not reproduced in any other species.

Human beings are a species of animal, and they share many characteristics with them. But there is one remarkable characteristic that differentiates them from all other animals: Each animal is what it is, with little or no confusion. But human beings are unknown factors. Each species of animals is dominated by one or a few characteristics. The human being is infinitely malleable. What then is a human being? What brings about this fundamental difference between human beings and other animals? Muslims answer these questions in many ways. The easiest approach within our current discussion is to investigate the nature of the relationship between human beings and the divine attributes. Every creature other than a human being is a sign of God in which a specific, limited, and defined configuration of divine attributes is reflected. In contrast, a human being reflects God as God. In other creatures, some divine attributes are permanently manifest while others are permanently hidden. In human beings, all divine attributes are present, and any of them can become manifest if circumstances are appropriate. The Prophet referred to this peculiar characteristic of human beings when he repeated the famous saying found in the Bible– a saying that has also played an important role in Jewish and Christian understandings of what it means to be human– “God created Adam in his own image” though we will employ “form” for “image,” in keeping with the Arabic text. Many authorities understand a similar meaning from the Qur’anic verse, “God taught Adam the name, all of them” (2:31). In effect, all things are present in human beings, because God taught them the names or realities of all things.

When it is said that everything is within human beings, this is not meant in a literal sense. The principle here is easy to understand if we return to the discussion of the divine names. God created the universe as the sum total of his signs. The signs explain the nature of God inasmuch as he discloses and reveals himself. What does he disclose? He discloses his attributes, such as life, knowledge, power, and speech. The cosmos in its full temporal and spatial extension – everything other than God – illustrates all God’s manifest attributes. Hence the macrocosm is an image, or form, of God.

The human being was also created in God’s form, embracing all God’s attributes. The difference between the whole universe and the human being is that the signs are infinitely dispersed in the universe, while they are concentrated into a single, intense focus in each human individual. The concentration of the attributes within human being makes people God’s vicegerents, that is, creatures who can perform the same functions as God, with all due respect to tanzīh. Human beings manifest all God’s attributes, but in a weakened and dim manner, demanded by the fact that, although they are similar to God in respect of having been created in his form, they are different in respect of spatial and temporal limitations. God remains infinitely beyond any human being.

God created human beings in his own form, which is to say that he taught them all the names. Adam had an actualized knowledge of these names, but he was still susceptible to temporary forgetfulness. The rest of the human race is born into a heedlessness that is more than temporary. The divine qualities are latent within them, but these qualities need to be brought out from latency and be embodied in people’s minds and activities.

God had created Adam to be his vicegerent. Vicegerency is the birthright of his children. However, they will only achieve the vicegerency if they follow the prophets. They must adopt the faith and practice given by God through the scriptures: “God has promised those who have faith and work wholesome deeds to make them vicegerents in the earth, even as He made those who were before them vicegerents” (24:55). To be God’s vicegerent means, among other things, to manifest all the divine attributes in the form of which human beings were created. Only by embodying God’s own qualities can human being represent Him. But we know that most people do not live up to their potential. Even if they do have faith and work wholesome deeds, they never become dependable servants of God, because caprice and heedlessness often make them ignore or forget their proper duties.

[3] Hinduism (Upanishads).

[4] Buddhism.

[5] Christianity (Augustine).

[6] Judaism.

[7] Islam (Qur’an).

[8] Carl G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Pantheon, 1963), 325.

[9] No aspect of Islamic thought and practice has been more overlooked in recent studies of Islam than spirituality. For most observers in Western countries, Islam embodies three traits that are antithetical to liberal views of religious expression: traditionalism, legalism, and authoritarianism. The spiritual dimension of Islam is seldom mentioned except with respect to Sufis. This blindness to the spiritual side of Islam is the result of a prejudice. According to this view, ‘real’ Islam is traditionalistic and legalistic but not deeply spiritual. When Sufi spirituality is brought up, it is usually not as a religious perspective within Islam but rather as an importation of spirituality from the outside. Since Sufi spirituality is not seen as ‘real’ Islam, Sufism is often treated as a separate sect or even as a de facto alternative religion. The underlying premise of our perspective is that rather than an obstacle to a progressive Islamic social consciousness, Islamic spirituality is the necessary ground for all religiously directed action. Not only is spirituality the soul of Islam, but it also constitutes Islam’s most valuable contribution to world religions.

Meg Greenfield wrote in Newsweek, in 1979:

“We are heading into an expansion of the American relationship with that complex of religion, culture and geography known as Islam. There are two things to be said about this. One is that no part of the world is more important to our own well-being at the moment– and probably for the foreseeable future. The other is that no part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us.”

Why is it that Islam is so “hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly”– three exceptionally severe adjectives –misunderstood by the west? One answer is that the west’s separation of church and state makes it next to impossible for it to understand people who not only lodge religious belief at the center of their individual conduct, but also at the center of their politics. This is indeed a major obstacle, but there are two others, the first of which again relates to politics. During most of their history, Muslims and Christians have been at odds, and rivals are not known for having the most objective views of each other.[9]

Once we think of them, these two causes of misunderstanding are obvious; but the third one is not. Religiously, people tend to fall into two categories. Some find the meaning they seek in religious forms– commandments, observances, and texts straightforwardly, largely literally, interpreted– while others, without bypassing or abandoning these, sense their provisional character and reach out for meanings that the forms contain but which cannot be equated with those forms. If we call the first type of person exoteric, out of his concern for meanings that attach to outward or manifest forms, the second type that is drawn to the meanings that underlie those forms conveniently designated esoteric.


Participants grapple with the difficulty of identifying specific processes that define ‘entry’ into the spiritual and mystical life. This source describes different types of people, some of whom will feel drawn to the spiritual and mystical life, unlike others who are satisfied with the concrete world. The (Muslim) contributor of the source responds to questions about the process of entering the spiritual and mystical life, saying that there are different processes for different people. One  participant suggests the need for ‘practice’ and ‘effort’. He proposes the term ‘psychological assimilation’ for the imitation of the Divine that religions recommend in order move towards a spiritual life.

Several  members of the Forum remind everyone to keep the vision in mind and to aim high and many agree that cannot be a single point of entry into the spiritual life nor a single method.