Lately, I’ve been receiving many questions about Sufism: “What is Sufism?” “Is it Islam?” “What does it teach?” I think there are many misconceptions about Islam’s spiritual dimension, especially from Orthodox Muslims. I decided to share some of my knowledge about Sufism in order to help clarify what it’s really all about. I hope you all find it helpful.
I think the best way to understand Sufism is to know that it is not different or separate from Islam. Sufism is Islamic mysticism (or spirituality). And mysticism is essentially one’s journey for Self, Love, and God. It’s a journey that emphasizes more on the inner struggle and dimensions of a human being, but since we’re not secluded monks, we have to also establish a bond with the outside world, i.e. our purpose. The Qur’an says [28:77] : “Seek — among that which God has bestowed upon you — the Hereafter. But do not forget your portion of this world either.” To me this refers to the balance that we must establish in the inner and outer worlds. If I am too spiritual, then I will miss out on my purpose. If I am too secular, then I will truly be dead. I will have no knowledge about who I am, who I Love, and where I am going.
This is a little something I wrote about Sufism on a discussion board one time: “Sufism” is merely a word if treated like a word. Just like “Islam” is simply a word if treated like one. The meaning is what’s important. Islam is submission, i.e. to the One and Only Eternal God of the Universe. Whatever you may call it, spirituality did not begin at a certain time or place, it has always been Present, even before the creation of the Universe. The Law of Submission exists in all created things, it exists in the Universe, in the air we breathe, in our cells, in everything we touch, feel, and hear. It doesn’t matter what you call it because that Divine Beauty is always Present because its Source is Eternal.
Here is another thing I wrote about it when I was speaking to someone who was asking if Sufism and Islam are different:
Sufism is the heart of Islam, just because something didn’t have a label or name in the past doesn’t mean it never existed. The spiritual teachings of the Sufis always existed, including and especially during Muhammad’s revelations, peace and blessings be upon him.
The way of the Sufi is the way of the Muslim (submitter) – to tear down the walls of separation, to discover one’s Self, to unveil the Secrets of the Universe, and to fuse in union with God. You cannot separate the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad from Sufism in the same way you cannot separate Sufism from Islam. “There are many numbers, but only One is counted” says Shabistari, a 13th century Sufi poet.
Like the Sunnis and Shias, the Sufis interpret the Qur’an in a unique way. For example, the Sufis would look deeper into certain verses like the following:
[15:28] Your Lord said to the angels, “I am creating a human being from aged mud, like the potter’s clay.
[15:29] “Once I perfect him, and blow into him from My spirit, you shall fall prostrate before him.”
[15:30] The angels fell prostrate; all of them.
From these verses, the Sufis would emphasize on how Allah’s spirit is within us all and that the Angels admire us because of this innate Gift. If one observes Persian paintings (which are heavily influenced by Sufism), one will see depictions of Angels always smiling and adoring human beings. It comes back to these verses. So the fact that Allah’s spirit is within us, we human beings can all make contact with this inner Divinity — not saying that we are God, but just that we are more than flesh and bone. A lot of us have forgotten about this spirit, we live life without God-consciousness and awareness, and many times, it’s not our fault. We just get caught up in so many things in the world.
The profound works of the 13th Century Persian Muslim poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, are so beautiful and Divinely-inspired that he is often synonymous with the word, “Sufism.” However, it’s not like he started his “own religion.” On the contrary, Sufism sprung in the same way that Shia Islam came about — these Muslims like Rumi noticed that the Muslim rulers were becoming more and more corrupt, emphasizing too much on the material, while the extremist and so-called “religious” Muslims were calling everything haram (forbidden). The Sufis expressed themselves through poetry and they wrote about how Muslims needed to bring Islam back to its True and Spiritual roots. Here are some beautiful verses from Rumi:
The thousand spears of Pharaoh, Moses knew,
With just one rod how to split them in two;
Medical sciences once Galen taught
But next to Jesus’s breath they’re worth naught;
The finest poetry was put to shame
The day illiterate Muhammad came
This next one is especially important since it shows that Sufism is not separate from Islam:
I am the servant of the Qur’an as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words.
Another interesting aspect about Sufism is that learning is not just about reading books or memorizing verses. Learning is also about experiencing — in fact, a lot of emphasis is based on one experiencing the Beauty from Allah’s Divine Love. As exemplified here in a Punjabi poem by the great 17th-18th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah:
paRh paRh ilm hazaar kitaabaN
qaddi apnay aap nou paRhiya naee
jaaN jaaN waRhday mandir maseedi
qaddi mann apnay wich waRhiya naee
aa-vaiN laRda aye shaitan de naal bandeaa
qaddi nafss apnay naal laRiya naee
Yes, yes, you have read thousands of books
But you have never tried to read your own self
You rush in, into your Temples,
Into your Mosques,
But you have never tried to enter your own heart
Futile are all your battles with Satan
For you have never tried to fight your own desires
~ Bulleh Shah
There is a movement art in Sufism that is quite famous: The Whirling Dervishes (as you can see depicted in the Persian painting above). Many strict Muslims misunderstand whirling meditation, and they find it to be blasphemous since there is singing and dancing involved. However, as I mentioned, the whirling meditation is a movement art, and it is in no way meant to replace prayer. It is a form of zikr (or dhikr) which, in Arabic, means “remembrance/mindfulness of God.” The Sufis emphasize heavily on being mindful of God at all times, so that one journeys through life with a clear and less-conflicted mind. No one is expected to learn how to whirl because it is not compulsory. It is something that must be acted upon, something that must be a choice, and something that a person needs to feel. In South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.), there is a popular Sufi music tradition called Qawwalis, which are best described as Love and Devotion Songs. But these Love songs are not sung in praise of romantic relationships; they are sung in praise of God, the Prophets (mainly Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), Imams (like ‘Ali, peace be upon him), and Sufi mystics (any song about romantic relationships will always incorporate God). The songs are traditionally sung live with acoustic-only instruments (tabla, guitars, harmonium, sitars, flutes, etc.) and they are mainly driven by ecstatic and passionate wailing, which symbolizes the human longing to be reunited with the Divine. From mystical poetry and music to dancing, the Sufis find these forms of art as a way to absorb themselves in God’s Love. It is also a way to empty one’s self of longings and desires, so that one becomes free of the ego and empty. God fills the void with His Beauties.
In conclusion, it’s important to understand that Sufism is not different than Islam, but rather the inward dimension of Islam. The Qur’an, of course, is the basis for everything, but there are deeper meanings and secrets that are embedded in the Message. Since we are not Prophets, we cannot communicate directly with Allah, however we can follow the Prophetic Light. There is always going to be more to learn in Life — that is one of Life’s Hidden Joys. The most unhearing people are those who think they know everything.
As Muhammad, peace be upon him, once said, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” The more we learn about ourselves, the closer we are to God. The further away we are from who we truly are, the further we are from God. This journey is not just one of learning, but of experiencing; to feel Divine Love with your mind, body, and soul — your Entire Being. It is a journey of self-discovery, and self-discovery ultimately leads to a state of Oneness, Peace, and Ever-Lasting Love. May we all acheive that with the help and guidance of our All-Loving Creator. Ameen.
~ Broken Mystic ~