Sufism: Islamic Mysticism

is the inner, mystical dimension
of Islam. Its focus tends to be on the mystical, first-hand, direct
experience of God called
than on doctrine or authority. Sufism began as an
An ascetic person is characterised by their severe self-discipline and
self-control; they will abstain from all forms of indulgence –
money, material goods, sex, food, comfort – for religious reasons.

The Sufis can be compared to monastic Christianity, which developed
early in the history of the Church and included monks and nuns. The
means “alone” and the first monks did live alone in the
wilderness, but eventually they congregated to form a community (or
monastery), albeit still one separated from the world at large.
Likewise, Sufism aimed to counteract the wealth, power and indulgence
that came with the expanding Muslim community by branching off and
forming their own community.

mystics can also be compared to
which are the equivalent of Buddhist monks and nuns who live a
similar sort of monastic life. The 14
Century historian Ibn Khaldun gives an accurate description of Sufism
which would apply to Sufis today; he describes it as: “
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.”

earliest form of Sufism began less than a century after the founding
of Islam and mystics of this period were known to concentrate on the
Doomsday passages in the Koran, earning names such as “those who
always weep.” Sufism would develop to become a much different kind
of mysticism, one not so focused on the destructive aspects of Islam.

Sufi mystics were also known to concentrate all of their efforts on
the Muslim concept of tawakkul,
which means an absolute trust in God. This would become a central
concept for Sufis and involved having an extreme faith in God to the
point where you do not need to have faith in anything else. The
concept can be found in the Koran, such as in the lines: “And
whoever puts all his trust in God, He will be enough for him”; “And
put all your trust [in the God], if you truly are believers.”
Another core principle in Sufism is tawhid
which means the realisation that there is no deity but God or Allah.
Tawhid has been interpreted by Sufi mystics in different ways. Some
see it as meaning that nothing but God truly exists or that God and
nature are just two aspects of the same reality.

The second
interpretation is very similar to some forms of pantheism.
Pantheism is the belief that God is Nature or God is the Universe.
The philosopher Spinoza was a pantheist who argued that there is one
eternal substance called God or Nature and that everything else is
just an aspect of that substance. Both Sufism and pantheism tend to
be monistic, that is,
they believe that there is only one kind of substance in the world
and everything else is an expression of that. Dualists,
in contrast, believe that there are essentially two kinds of
substances in the world, e.g. mind and body, good and evil (which
Zoroastrians believe) or spirit and matter.

a century later, however, the emphasis in Sufism was no longer on
Doomsday, leading an ascetic life or putting all of your trust in
God. A new emphasis was placed on the concept of love – many see
this as the point in which Sufism changed from an asceticism into
mysticism. This development was set in motion by Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyah
in 801 AD, who set up the Sufi ideal of loving God, without hope of
being reborn in Paradise or a fear of being sent to Hell. What’s
worth pointing out is that Rabi’ah was a woman, which suggests from
the outset that Sufism is not an aspect of Islam which excludes or
discriminates against women, but welcomes, if not depends, on their
views on God.

period of 800-1100 AD is usually considered the age of classical
Sufism, where other key concepts were thought out, such as strict
self-control, a focus on “interior knowledge” and annihilating
the self in order to united with God. Annihilating the self seems to
be an aim of other kinds of mysticism as well. The ultimate purpose
of yoga in ancient Indian philosophy, for example, is to achieve
union with the Supreme (or God) by dissolving the self. This is
achieved through different mental, spiritual and physical techniques
depending on the kind of yoga which is being practised. 

poetry is also rich in Sufism and it helps to translate many
important mystical concepts in Sufism – the most famous poets
include Rumi, al-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Attar and Ibn Arabi. By the
Century, largely because of all the mystical poetry that was
produced, Sufism had filtered through into the whole Islamic world.
The idea of loving God for the benefit of man and loving man for the
benefit of God is also central to Sufism and features heavily in most
Islamic mystical poetry and hymns. In Attar’s poem The
Conference of the Birds
, the
story communicates the message that God is not external to us but is
the totality of existence. Attar says that the Sufi must realise this
and that therefore God is within each of us. The Masnavi,
a poem by Rumi, is considered one of the foundational texts of Sufi
mysticism. In books 5 and 6 for example, Rumi says that man must deny
his physical existence in order to understand God’s existence.

engage in many practices which are supposed to get them closer to
God. These include strict obedience to Islamic law and introspection
as a way to purify the self from all selfishness. This is similar to
the Tibetan meditation practice of metta bhavana
which means “loving-kindness”. The meditator in this tradition
sends out (through breathing in) happiness to loved ones, friends,
enemies and strangers while receiving (through breathing out)
suffering from all of these people. This kind of meditation, much
like the Sufi practice of self-denial and concentration, is supposed
to cultivate compassion. Charity and giving are therefore central to the Sufi way of life.

According to al-Ghazali, solitude,
sleeplessness, silence and hunger are important Sufi practices if one
wants to strip away all of their habits and bad characteristics.
Fasting is considered one of the most important ways to follow the
path of a spiritual life. This path, called tariqah,
also involves a kind of spiritual ecstasy or “intoxication” and
happens once the self is annihilated. This ecstasy is described in
other mystical traditions as well. Other practices which allow the
Sufi to become closer to God include ritual prayer or dhikr
which consists in repeating over and over again the different names
of God. There are thousands of repetitions. This is similar to the
practice of chanting in some forms of Buddhist meditation – it is
supposed to help the mystic enter into a trance state. Sessions of
music and poetry recitals called sama
have also been used to achieve an ecstatic experience. 

The most
visually impressive practice is Sufi whirling or spinning which is a
form of meditative dance. The dance involves listening to music,
focusing on God and spinning repetitively in circles, which has been
said to symbolise the planets orbiting in the Solar System. The
purpose of this dance is to abandon one’s ego and desires and enter
into a trance, getting the Sufi closer to God. This dance is still
practised by some Sufis today and it is a gender-neutral practice,
meaning that women can participate in it as equals.


1 Comment

  1. September 4, 2013 / 11:20 pm

    Thanks for the nice article. We should watch out however not to overstretch the idea of Sufism as the mystical side of Islam. Like Ney master Kudsi Erguner says in an interview on Sufi music: "Yet Sufism is pure Islam just like any other form of Islam. So you can’t try to solve the problem between the West and Islam – which I actually think is more a problem of modernity, capitalism, and geo-politics than of religion – by acting as if Sufism is less ‘strictly’ religious. There is no Sufism without Islam and there is no Islam without Sufism. " On there are quite some interesting interviews, by the way, with spiritual leaders and artists that place themselves within the Sufi tradition.

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