It is not Sufism if it does not perform its function for you. A cloak is no longer a cloak if it does not keep a man warm.
― Idries Shah, Thinkers of the East
The world has changed in many profound ways. Developments over the last two or three decades have been, in many cases, quite remarkable — notably the tremendous reduction in global poverty — and offers hitherto undreamt of opportunities. But all is far from well. We have banished all the old scourges like tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, plague. We have created enormous riches. But man was never poorer of heart, more devoid of pity and compassion. We have no time to breathe, to relax, to ponder, to remember God and appreciate His beautiful universe. Life is full of care and we feel so lonely and abandoned because no one belongs to no one. Living in a harsh world we have developed cynicism and hatred.
In the chaos that prevails around us the most authentic hope comes from Sufis, whose philosophy combines the virtuous message of formal religion with the transcendental values of love and harmony. The acclaimed modern Sufi Inayat Khan says: “The secret of life is balance and the absence of balance is life’s destruction”. Sufism, the source from which the mystical world springs, enables an individual to purge his mind of all toxic emotions and helps restore balance and harmony.
The finest exponent of this luminous philosophy was Rumi (which means daylight), the great 13th century Sufi mystic whose spiritual message has become the defining credo for many business titans, economic wizards and heads of financial juggernauts.
Rumi sought freedom for his soul through a mystical connection with the divine. Not every wayfarer who sets out on the path may attain the goal, but for Rumi it is the Sufi path, which offers the best potential of attaining to true knowledge.
Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. It consists of a variety of mystical paths that are designed to ascertain the nature of humanity and of God and to facilitate the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom in the world.
Sufism is in fact the confluence of the noble virtues of all the great prophets of Islam. The all-pervading and tolerant spirit of the Sufis is not surprising when we consider their sources of inspiration. Although the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is their ultimate model, other spiritual figures — which include Abraham, Moses and Jesus – also mold them. This is enunciated in ‘The Eight Qualities of the Sufi’ by a well-known Sufi master, Junaid of Baghdad:
“In Sufism, eight qualities must be exercised. The Sufi has:
Liberality such as that of Abraham;
Acceptance of his lot, as Ismail accepted;
Patience, as possessed by Job;
Capacity to communicate by symbolism, as in the case of Zachariah;
Estrangement from his own people, which was the case with John;
Woollen garb like the shepherd’s mantle of Moses;
Journeying, like the travelling of Jesus;
Humility, as Muhammad had humility of spirit.”
Karen Armstrong, one of the foremost contemporary scholars on theology and mysticism concludes at the end of her admirable and deeply penetrating study, ‘A History of God’, that the long and arduous training a mystic needs to become conscious of God’s reality does not readily appeal to the broad public. This is of course, true, yet a mystical perspective remains meaningful for many people. Dr H J Wittevee, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, an accomplished, Sufi says that we all have a divine spark in us and we can experience glimpses of the divine when we forget our limitations in the beauty of nature, or art, or in deep love. Pursuing such experiences, and letting them grow deeper, he says, can lead us into the cosmic realm and enable us to celebrate celestial love. As the well-known Persian poet Saadi says: “Every soul is born with a certain purpose and the light of that purpose is kindled in his soul”
According to Sufi teachings, the path to experiencing the Divine Presence starts within. It is said that one who realises oneself realises the Lord. God is present, but individuals cannot see the Almighty because curtains of ignorance veil their eyes and rust encases their hearts. The average person is ego-centric. Only after he or she has polished the heart and purified the self will the curtains lift, the rust fall away, and the eyes become able to see God.
Through years of effort, Sufi masters developed a scientific approach to achieving such refinement. They discovered that in addition to the mind, human beings have other centres of consciousness that serve as inner faculties for attaining knowledge. Foremost among these centres is the heart. With diligent practice, teachers of Sufism perfected techniques that activate the heart, cultivating profound intuition and realisation.
The polished heart becomes a mirror that catches the light of truth and reflects it in one’s consciousness. With this light dawns the understanding that beyond material phenomena, there exists a Being of which everything in the universe is a reflection. One’s own being itself reflects the higher Being.
The Sufis brought with them the egalitarianism of Islam, shorn of its aggressive, proselytising zeal. Their appeal is both individual, offering a salvation ethic based on submission to the divine love of the saint; as well as social, based on the brotherhood of all men, cutting along the dividing lines of caste and creed.
Sufis consider the spirit and body to be one whole. They believe in integration, not dichotomies. What we do in our physical lives affects our spiritually, and vice versa. We cannot look at our lives in a vacuum. Our lives are integrated with our environment, ethics, and family. A well-known Sheikh Muzaffar says, “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and your heart busy with God.” Our faith has to be practised daily within our corporate lives. As Sahi, an eminent Sufi mystic exhorts: “A man should be in the marketplace while still working with true reality.”
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has followed the Sufi path. Some of her later works bear the imprint of her interest in Sufi mysticism, which she has interpreted as stressing a link between the fates of individuals and society. In an essay on Idries Shah, the great Sufi master, she explained its attraction: “Sufi truth is at the core of every religion, its heart, and religions are only the outward vestments of an inner reality.”
She writes further: “Sufis claim that all kinds of notions we think of as Western achievements were part of Sufi knowledge long ago: evolution, for instance, or the power locked in the atom. Their sociological and psychological insights are far in advance of our current ideas. These are most skilled and versatile servants. I have been a student for three decades, and am continually being surprised by what I learn. I have found nothing as informed, subtle, comprehensive, perceptive, anywhere else.”
Sufism’s message of compassion, humility and universal love is attractive and inspiring. But what is a youngster, soaked in the materialist urban milieu in which television provides the greatest input, to make of Sufism? How would he or she understand the Sufi stories?
The following tale from the celebrated ‘Mathnawi’ of the greatest of Sufi master, Rumi, illustrates the point. A disciple seeking the Sufi path finally feels he has mastered it and arrives to announce this to his master. He knocks on the door and when asked “Who is there?” answers “I”. The master says, “Go away, you have not yet acquired knowledge.” He leaves to return after he has performed more spiritual exercises, and this time when asked who is knocking says “Thou”. “Come in”, says the master. “There is no room for two in this house.”
This Sufi story illustrates the layers of understanding that lie in Sufism: the obliteration of the ego, the need for the master who will help the quest for knowledge along the divine path, and the search for the true way, the way of God, however difficult and esoteric. These stories are allegories, metaphors, stories within stories, and like the layers of an onion they require patience to peel; they sometimes end in tears.
Several Sufis feel that the time was approaching when their esoteric knowledge, their maps of the unconscious, accumulated over centuries, would be spread to the west, which was now a spiritual desert. While the west has been developing its technological prowess, the dervishes have developed a sophisticated type of inner technology and spiritual engineering, their practices a way of moving towards self-realisation.
The Sufi ideal is to combine the inner and outer life to be active in the world, for example, as an economist or a politician, and at the same time to be inspired by attuning to the divine ideal. The important thing is the balance between these two aspects of like so that the inner light can motivate and shine through worldly activities. Sufism is the message of digging out that water-like life which has been buried by the impressions of this material life. There is an English phrase: a lost soul. But the soul is not lost; it is only buried. When it is dug out divine life bursts forth like a spring. Where is God to be found? He is to be found in the heart of man which is His shrine. But if this heart is buried, if it has lost that light, what does this heart become? It becomes like a grave. In a popular English song there is a beautiful line which says, “The light of a whole life dies when love is gone.” That living life giving element in the heart is love. It gets overlaid by the dense fog of our worldly pursuits and vain ambitions.
Not every wayfarer who sets out on the path may attain the goal, but for Rumi it is the Sufi path which offers the best potential for attaining true knowledge. What exactly does Rumi understand by Sufism and the quest? How does this mystical way relate to the path of Sharia, or religious law? Neither a separate religion nor a sect of Islam, the Sufi path (Tariqa) is rather a mode of religious observance and a method of self-training and purification, the goal of which is to orient the believer to a religiously-informed spirituality of experience.
Rumi’s Sufism rests upon traditional practices like prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. There is great emphasis on control of baser impulses. Following the example of the prophet Rumi saw everything in existence as continually revealing the Beauty, Intelligence, Generosity, Grace and Love of the Divine Being. Rumi was awestruck and blissfully intoxicated with this love-drenched Oneness. Gradually, Rumi also regained a sobriety expansive enough to contain this ecstatic intoxication and in the course of his life left us a literary legacy that has earned him the title “the Shakespeare of mystics.”
Rumi advocated an individual and interior spirituality, and it is the love, rather than the fear, of God that lies at the heart of his message. He attempts to merge the spirit of the human with the ideal of a god of love, whom Rumi locates within the human heart. Rumi’s first biographer, Aflaki, tells of a man who came to Rumi asking how he could reach the other world, as only there would he be at peace. “What do you know about where He is?” asked Rumi. “Everything in this or that world is within you.”
Because God can best be reached through the gateway of the heart, Rumi believed you did not necessarily need ritual to get to him, and that the Divine is as accessible to Christians and Jews as to Muslims: “Love’s creed is separate from all religions,” he wrote. “The creed and denomination of lovers is God.” All traditions are tolerated, because in the opinion of Rumi anyone is capable of expressing their love for God, and that transcends both religious associations and your place in the social order: “My religion,” he wrote, “is to live through love.”
Yet for all this, Rumi himself always remained an orthodox and practicing Sunni Muslim. As Lewis rightly notes, “Rumi did not come to his theology of tolerance and inclusive spirituality by turning away from traditional Islam, but through immersion in it.”
Historically, there are a couple of features about Sufism that rankle the fundamentalists. One is that Sufism, many feel, encourages a kind of fatalism and withdrawal from the real world. The second is that Sufism looks a little like Christianity. Sufis believe in intercessors (in Arabic wali or auliya) —
people with special spiritual access, who can help a person’s prayers be heard by God. Mainstream Islam rejects intercessors, since it holds that every Muslim is equal before God. (Even the Prophet Muhammad is not prayed to but prayed for.)
Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mathnavi, is a six-book epic poem that he wrote toward the end of his life. Its fifty thousand lines are mostly in Persian, but they are studded with Arabic excerpts from Muslim scripture. It is heavily informed by Islamic thought, and frequently alludes to Qur’anic anecdotes that offer moral lessons.The work has been nicknamed the Persian Qur’an. Rumi himself described the Mathnavi as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion” — meaning Islam — “and the explainer of the Qur’an.” And yet little trace of the religion exists in the translations that sell so well in the United States. Sadly the translators have stripped the poetry of its Qur’anic ethos.
This is totally against the convictions of Rumi. In an authentic quatrain composed by him, he tells us:
“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.”
(Rumi’s Quatrain No. 1173, translated by Ibrahim Gamard and Ravan Farhadi in ‘The Quatrains of Rumi’)
To understand Rumi without the Qur’an is like reading Milton without the Bible. Even if Rumi was heterodox, it’s important to recognise that he was heterodox in a Muslim context — and that Islamic culture, centuries ago, had room for such heterodoxy. Rumi’s works are not just layered with religion; they represent the historical dynamism within Islamic scholarship.
The dilemma of Sufism is best summed up in this lovely quote:
“Today Sufism is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name.”
(Abu l-Hasan Fushanji, quoted in Lings, Martin, What is Sufism?, The Islamic Texts Society, 1999)