THE NECESSITY OF SUFISM FOR HUMANITY

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What is the necessity of Sufism for humanity? Here’s answer…

Sufism represents the essence and spiritual dimension of Islam; like the core of a fruit that gives its taste. It is a well-known fact that man fundamentally has two existential dimensions: the body and soul. Each of these dimensions has natural requests and inclinations. Islam does not deny these, as they come from birth and creation; instead it recognizes them as natural facts. Islam, however, does aim at improving positive inclinations, while reducing negative inclinations and temptations to the smallest degree possible and directing them towards a positive end. And conducive to this objective, Islam sets certain principles.

If man ignores his spiritual dimension and designs his whole life merely in accordance with his bodily needs and expectations, he cannot reach happiness and tranquility, since he needs to do something to meet the irrepressible needs of his spiritual existence. Religion provides a balanced schedule between the material and immaterial worlds. On the one hand, it leads human being towards the immaterial world, but on the other hand, it does not deny nor ignore the necessities in relation to this material world. Rather, religion redefines bodily, material inclinations and adds celestial meanings to them. When a man gets used to looking at everything from a materialist perspective, he starts analyzing everything, even the most abstract and subtle ones, from a materialist perception. He fails to see the very immaterial reality behind the material existence. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons behind the opposition of many to the Sufi way.

In its original, uncorrupted form, human perception is attracted to spiritual secrets and abstract realities, as well as to material and concrete beings. The central point is then whether or not a man satisfies the needs of his soul, as eagerly as he would satisfy his bodily needs. Today many Westerners, struggling with moral crises and corruption despite having reached the peaks of material welfare, have found themselves dragged to the pits of atheism. Even in Rome, the center of Catholic Christianity, atheists constitute a sizable group in society, only because they have been deprived of satisfaction between their spiritual and immaterial needs. The main reason underlying this predicament is the fact that they have lost the connection between the Divine origin and their heart. Since the current version of their religion has been misrepresented and distorted through human interference, it has lost its untouched Divine form and can therefore no longer satisfy natural human needs. And for this reason, many Westerners do not feel a deep-seated enjoyment of their religion; nor do they reach real happiness and tranquility.

A person who remains deprived of the inner or spiritual enjoyment religion provides views everything, even the most abstract things, from a materialist viewpoint and analyzes them in a crude and formal manner. Consequently, such an understanding of religion remains empty and bone-dry.

As for Sufism, it leads man towards the spirit and soul. It opens a suitable way to personal capacity for spiritual satisfaction. If we ignore the spiritual dimension of religion, which gives satisfaction to man, we would reduce it to the level of human systems based on personal interests. In this case, we would be promoting only the external and worldly benefits of acts of worship and servanthood, at the expense of disregarding the main goal that satisfies the heart. Then, for instance, daily prayer, fasting and almsgiving would be depicted as a certain physical practice, diet, and social assistance, respectively. Such an understanding and practice of religion is always doomed to be highly opportunistic nature. This is not to entirely disregard these consequential benefits altogether; yet they are never the main objectives, but only offshoots of these deeds.

If we pay attention only to the outward benefits of religion, we would entirely miss the main point of offering deeds of worship; and since this jaded perspective would move us away from the essence of Islam, an understanding of the kind would no longer be Islamic. The essence of the religion is about meeting the needs of the human spirit and satisfying the innate human disposition regarding its religious orientation. And the way to furnish the practice of the instructions of religion with a spiritual profundity is Sufi training. Early Muslim believers, who sought to reach a profundity in religion, found some means to attain to it and eventually systematized Sufi education.

Putting all beings on a hierarchical scale of perfection from the simplest to the most advanced, one finds that the human being represents the peak point of this order. But even within human beings, there are many different types and levels with respect to their inborn capacities and inclinations.  This is a necessary social arrangement for the facilitation of life on Earth. Based on His unquestionable knowledge and design, the Almighty has created human beings with various potentials, not only with respect to their outward capabilities, but also with respect to their inward or spiritual capabilities. He does not require anything beyond their capacities from His servants, but nonetheless does put certain responsibilities over their shoulders in proportion to their abilities.

The Almighty, Whose mercy is exceeds His wrath, has an unlimited mercy for His entire creation. For this reason, in holding His servants liable with certain responsibilities, the Almighty takes their minimum level of capacities into consideration. In other words, He sets the basic limits in proportion with the capacities of the weakest human being. On the other hand, however, for those who are naturally able to carry responsibilities more than ordinary people, it is only natural that there should be a way to let them improve themselves so that they could flourish and enjoy their spiritual potentials. Otherwise, being restricted from meeting the needs of their spirit would be injustice towards them. Therefore, in addition to the common responsibilities they share with ordinary believers before the Law (Shariah), they are nevertheless offered a way of improving their souls in abstinence, piety and internalizing faith. And the Sufi way is just that, which at once, provides both the rational and religious grounds for its necessity.

The peace and serenity of the heart depends on the level of spirituality it has reached. Its realization demands that a servant undergo a spiritual training, insofar as full of knowledge and wisdom, insight into the highest religious realities thus spiritual perfection only begins to trickle inside the heart through an implementing of certain practices. Even in the case of prophets, who were designated among mankind as living models, went through a unique, preparatory process before they ever received Divine revelation. In order for the heart to become receptive to spiritual manifestations, it needs to be refined from its density and hardness to a certain blend of delicacy and sensitivity. True to this process, before he received the mission of prophethood, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- would consistently enter a spiritual retreat. Likewise, Musa -upon him peace- underwent a phase of religious contemplation before he talked to the Almighty. Similarly, before he became the ruler of Egypt, Yusuf -upon him peace- remained in prison for twelve years, in which he endured sufferings of many kinds. And in the end of this period, his heart severed all concerns and relations from all else besides the Almighty.

Before his ascension to the heavens, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was given insight, by the Divine, into the mystery underlying the Quranic chapter Inshirah (Expansion). His chest was cleft open, after which his blessed heart was cleansed and filled with knowledge and wisdom, in preparation for the extraordinary occurrences he was about to witness of Divine secrets and spiritual realities, too subtle and therefore beyond ordinary human perception.

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had the kindest and purest heart any human being had ever possessed, a fact admitted to by even the most ingrained unbelievers of his time. In spite of this, he still had to undergo a spiritual operation in order to be fully equipped to behold the exposition of the magnificent secrets that were to be exhibited for him by the Almighty, for which he underwent the operation known as Shaqq-i Sadr (Expansion of the Breast)[1]. This operation, at once, emphasizes the importance of the spiritual world. Even prophets, exclusive in being privileged with the attribute of innocence (isma), were made to undergo a process of purifying their hearts before entering the presence of the Almighty.

If the prophets, who were chosen servants of the Almighty, had to undergo a process of inner purification, then we can imagine the necessity and importance of this undertaking for ordinary human beings; for one cannot come close to the Subtle (Latif)• with an unsubtle and harsh heart. This is comparable to the case of a person who has lost the sense of sight and smell and who therefore cannot enjoy the delicate fragrance of a rose; or the inability to see a beautiful scene through a vapory window. Thus, in order to become receptive to Divine secrets and wisdoms, the heart needs to be entirely refined of in-subtleness and harshness, evocative of the declaration of the Almighty, in the Quran, which reads, “The Day when there will not benefit [anyone]wealth or children, but only one who comes to The Almighty with a purified heart.” (as-Shuara, 88-89) And only by means of spiritual education does the heart assume a purity of the kind.

Strolling along a shore, one can stumble upon a great number of stones, almost embedded in the sand, that have interminably been polished by the splashing waves, which not only has smoothened the stones of all their defects, they have also imparted onto them a durable, granite-like strength. Similar is the case of a raw piece of diamond. Only after being cut through with the skillful strokes of a craftsman does it reach its inner potential of brilliance and transparency. Likewise, in order to obtain a little amount of gold, one must sift a huge amount of soil. What we mean is that every single thing in this world goes through some kind of a process of refinement and purification. The heart is no different; for in order to attain to its Quranic quality of purity, it must be subjected to a spiritual education.

A spiritually uneducated heart is a raw and cold iron. Giving it a certain shape demands that it be placed in a fire to burn away its rust, and a few, competent strikes to transform its hard, stubborn quality to softness. Only after such a sequence can one furnish it with the intended shape. Likewise is the case of the heart; in order to perfect its inherent quality, it needs to be placed under certain spiritual trainings, after which it begins to witness the realm of realities, invisible to ordinary vision and impermeable to the rational faculties. This unique kind of vision or witnessing is purely a matter of spiritual experience and perception.

To be able to reach this level of perfection, one needs to strengthen and mature the capacity of one’s heart. In a similar fashion, if an ordinary and untrained person attempts to perform a physical motion that normally requires long practice, he may end up breaking his bones; yet the same motion can easily be performed by a trained athlete without any risk. Any given physical ability can be achieved by concentrating the entire strength of the body onto a single point. Correspondingly, for the heart to acquire the necessary spiritual ability, all its strength must concentrate on the remembrance of Allah, glory unto Him, and love for His Messenger -upon him blessings and peace-. The Quran hints at this prerequisite when it declares,

اِنَّمَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ الَّذِينَ اِذَا ذُكِرَ اللّٰهُ وَجِلَتْ قُلُوبُهُمْ

وَ اِذَا تُلِيَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ اٰيَاتُهُ زَادَتْهُمْ اِيمَانًا وَ عَلَى رَبّـِهِمْ يَتَوَكَّلُونَ

“The believers are only those who, when The Almighty is mentioned, their hearts become fearful, and when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith; and upon their Lord they rely.” (al-Anfal, 2)

Guiding the heart atop this high level of perfection involves a process of cleansing it and keeping it distant from sin and instilling in it a spiritual maturity; since a hard, untrained heart cannot get in proper touch with the Lord. An elementary school student cannot understand the content of the books studied by law school students, simply because his mind has not reached the level of maturity required for their comprehension. He still has long years of education in front of him. Similarly, an immature and raw heart needs a certain kind of education and training before it can ever begin to comprehend the intricate subtleties on the path of the Lord. It is this education or training that is the hallmark of the Sufi path.

The sole focal point is hence the heart; the quality of which the Lord pays attention to in all conduct and deeds of worship, as testified to by the words of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-: “Verily the Almighty does not look at your bodies and your appearances, but He look at your hearts” (Muslim, Birr, 33).  This goes for all kinds of conduct. If a servant, for instance, eats with the intention of gaining strength to duly fulfill his deeds of worship, even his eating itself is considered a type of worship. Working to earn a livelihood for one’s family in a lawful manner is also a type of worship; and every move made for that purpose is met with by a reward from the Almighty, as his intention, which is an act exclusive to the heart, is good.

Similar to this is clothing. Wearing an imamah, for instance, is a part of Sunnah or the authentic practice of the Prophet –upon him blessings and peace-. A person who wears an imamah, however, should look to mature his spiritual dimension and personify this formal Sunnah in his moral conduct, through exhibiting, for instance, affection and mercy, among numerous others. Mere formality is, otherwise, insufficient on its own; it might even lead a person to ostentation. Yunus Emre expresses this fact wonderfully, when he says, “If becoming a dervish was wearing a turban and cloak, we would buy them at little expense.”

In a similar fashion, the veiling of women is a requirement in Islam. A Muslim woman, however, should be veiled not just formally and outwardly, but also spiritually and inwardly. While her body is veiled, a woman’s morality might in fact be meager and naked. If a woman is ignorant and brazen, she may easily put aside her veil when the times become difficult or when her ego finds a way to dominate her. Whilst veiling herself, she must maintain her mission of womanhood, since she is entrusted with the responsibility over the nurturing of her children and housekeeping. For this reason, a solid moral fiber is essential for her in every aspect of life. Without a doubt, her morals ought to go hand-in-hand with her formal veiling, which she must observe, lest she transgress the limits set by the Almighty. With that said, insofar as the commands of the Almighty are concerned, covering up is not the end of the road but only part and perhaps the beginning of it.

To cite another example, building a mosque is considered a huge charity in Islam, but if the benefactor acts not out of moral maturity but only to promote the selfishness of his ego in a self-congratulatory manner, Allah forbid, the value of his charity becomes very little and almost nothing. Indeed, the Almighty belittles and humiliates those who, in their deeds, promote only themselves and always say ‘I’; though, in contrast, He praises those who say, “O Lord! This is but your favor and kindness.” The sole criterion, therefore, of rendering all human actions acceptable in the Sight of the Divine is their underlying intention and moral quality.

With all the aforementioned accounts now in the backdrop, we may arrive at the conclusion that Sufism plays a significant religious role in human life; for it is a spiritual system of education whose motivation is to teach the precise and appropriate manner of how every single action ought to be executed, that is to say, under the constant mindset of being in a state of worship, and how every act of worship is to be offered in a spiritually refined way. There are, in fact, two complementary dimensions in every single deed of worship: form and essence or spirit. In the Quran, Allah, glory unto him, does not provide detailed information regarding the formal requirements of worship, such as the number of times one is supposed to kneel and prostrate in a single daily prayer. But He does inform us about the required moral and spiritual qualities we must embody when offering them, leaving the teaching of their formal requirements to the practice of the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace-.

Even a hypocrite can fulfill the mere formal or outward requirements of a given deed of worship. The chief hypocrite Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul, for example, would frequent the Mosque in Medina to offer his daily prayers behind the lead of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-; yet this offering was a sheer matter of formality, lacking the embodiment of real essence behind the deed. Acts of worship offered only to meet formalities do not have any merit in the presence of the Almighty. Their acceptability depends on the unity of form and essence.

A careful analysis of both the Quranic verses and the Prophetic sayings on the pillars of Islam, such as daily prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage, reveals that it is imperative for a servant to unite their outward and inward requirements in his deed. In relation to daily prayer, for instance, the Quran declares, “Indeed, prayer restrains from immorality and wrongdoing.” (al-Ankabut, 45) A person is unable to restrain himself from wrongdoings despite punctually offering his daily prayers, lacks sincerity in his deed. The Almighty is stern concerning those who outwardly offer the daily prayers, yet insincerely: “So woe to those who pray, [but]who are heedless of their prayer.” (al-Maun, 4-5) Similar is another Quranic verse: “Certainly will the believers have succeeded: They who are during their prayer humbly submissive.” (al-Muminun, 1-2)

According to the requirements laid down by above verses of the Quran, the primary characteristic of those who are bound for salvation is that they offer ritual prayers submissively. Performing a prayer in a complete manner demands that one implements its outward and inward requirements in unity. We can picture two persons offering prayer at the same time and place; yet that is not to say that there is no great difference between the two performances. In explaining the inner requirements of a ritual, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- states, “A person performs prayer; but only one half, one third, one fourth, one fifth, one sixth, one seventh, one eighth, one ninth, even one tenth of his prayer is written for him [as reward].” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, IV, 321) In the Quran, the Almighty identifies believers as those “…who carefully maintain their prayers.” (al-Muminun, 9)

Together with, though venturing beyond its external meaning, Rumi provides an esoteric interpretation of the above Quranic verse and says, “They maintain their states during prayer, even after completing the prayer. The daily prayers, that show us the straight path and restrain us from wrongdoing, are performed five times a day. But the lovers are always in prayer; for the passion in of Divine love burning inside their hearts cannot be snuffed out in five splashes; nor would it disappear with five-hundred-thousand.” Similarly, Yunus Emre describes the prayers of those awakened from heedlessness in the following lines:

Our imam is love, our congregation in the heart;
The qiblah is the Beloved, the prayer incessant.

In fact, a standard ritual prayer lasts approximately up to ten or fifteen minutes. Still, a servant is expected to maintain his religious concentration even after completing his daily prayers, lest his heart be exposed to the intrusion of ill-thoughts that gradually throw it back into heedlessness, immorality and even -Allah forbid – disbelief. For this reason, the servant should relentlessly busy his heart busy with Divine remembrance and always remain mindful of Him.

The heedless, on the other hand, do not have a heart endowed with the quality of being submissive to and mindful of the Almighty even during ritual prayer, let alone outside it. On this subject, the following story is quite meaningful.

A dervish, proceeding on the path of spiritual maturity, was offering ritual prayer in a mosque in the middle of the night. Then it suddenly started raining and with the raindrops pelting down onto the roof, his heart began longing for home. At that moment, a cautionary voice inside of him said, “This prayer of yours is no good for us because you have sent your beautiful part (heart) home and left here merely your body.” This recalls the words of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-: “There are many who pray deep into the night but staying up late sleepless is all they gain.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, II, 373) Ultimately, it all comes down to moral and spiritual maturity.

Comparable is the case of fasting, comprised of both outward and inward dimensions, which must be taken into account when offering one. The Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- assures that such a consummate offering of fasting erases all kinds of sins previously committed: “Whoever fasts during the month of Ramadan, believing in its merit and expecting its return only from the Almighty, will have his past sins forgiven.” (Bukhari, Sawm, 6) Otherwise, fasting is merely  an experiment of starvation. Rather, the purpose of fasting is to acquire a forceful sense of piety; a sense of being conscious of the Lord at all times (taqwa). Attesting to this is the Quran itself: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may attain piety.” (al-Baqarah, 183)

From this perspective, fasting should not be performed only with the stomach, but with the entire organs of the body, and most importantly, the heart. Through contemplating on the significance of the blessings given by the Almighty, the heart is expected to comprehend the spiritual depth of the notion of fasting. Fasting is a type of training to flourish good moral characteristics in man, like mercy and affection. If a person fasts without displaying such characteristics, his fasting becomes a matter of formality. Gossiping and backbiting, especially, whilst fasting, prevents the deed from receiving any rewards and reduces it to nothing. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underlines the importance of this fact saying, “There are many of those who fast, but the only result of their fasting is hunger and thirst.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, II, 373) This hadith is another indication of the necessity of upholding the moral and spiritual dimensions of fasting.

The significance of the moral and spiritual dimensions of deeds of worship can also be observed in almsgiving (zakat), a manifestation and proof of a believer’s altruism. When He talks about the characteristics of the believers in the Quran, the Almighty says, “And from their properties was [given]the right of the [needy]petitioner and the deprived.” (ad-Dhariyat, 9)

If a believer is person of spiritual strength, on handing out the required alms from his wealth, he does so with the mindset of restoring the rights the needy and deprived and not as if he is doing them a favor; he further feels appreciation and gratitude towards them for giving him the opportunity to purify his wealth. Only by embodying this mindset can a believer take hold of the real meaning and virtue of almsgiving. To be sure, the receiver does help the benefactor in providing an avenue for him to fulfill an obligatory deed of worship and to protect him from misfortunes and troubles, as well as enabling him to acquire eternal rewards. When offering any form of charity, a truly mature believer acts in accordance with the hadith, “Charity reaches The Almighty’s Hand [of power]before it reaches the hand of the needy.” (Tabarani, Mujam al-Kabir, IX, 109)[2] To be able to grasp the secret of this hadith, the believer acts insightfully and knows that everything he gives goes, in reality, to the Almighty. And such is the confirmatory basis of the spiritual dimension of almsgiving, a sensitivity that only comes through with moral and spiritual maturity.

When giving something away as charity, the great saints would even wrap it in a nice cover and give it in secret, mindful of the fact that the Almighty would receive it first before the needy. Such are some of the manifestations the moral sensitivity and kindness Islam imparts. Alluding to the etiquette in offering charity, the Almighty emphasizes the same point in the Quran by declaring, “He (The Almighty) receives charities.” (at-Tawbah, 104)

In stark contrast, if a person offers charity without any awareness of delicate etiquette he needs to embody and in a conceited way that rubs salt onto the wound of the needy, it would mean obliterate all his potential rewards, as Islam sternly condemns such arrogance and insensitivity. A Muslim should always be an epitome of kindness and sensitivity; yet then again, these characteristics depend on the moral and spiritual level of the person.

Supreme moral and spiritual character traits are more perceptible during pilgrimage. On the surface, pilgrimage comes across as a deed of worship dominated by formal and physical aspects, like wearing the pilgrim’s garb (ihram), circumambulating (tawaf), standing on the hill of Arafat, offering sacrifice, going to Muzdalifa, and so on. These, however, comprise only the external aspects of pilgrimage. When we look into the spiritual dimension of this act of worship, by taking part in it, we are reminded of the Final Hour and the Day of Judgment, through which we are called upon to contemplate on the Divine reckoning and to reflect on and reevaluate the days of our lives that have passed thus far.

In a mosque, believers stand in the same line of prayer, regardless of their social standing.  Still, a quick look at what each person wears by suffices to provide enough evidence for us to make an accurate estimation of what the social standing of each and every person actually is. But conducting guesswork of the kind is impossible during the annual pilgrimage. Millions of people stand shoulder to shoulder, enshrouded in the same type of clothing, without giving away the least clue as to what their social standings in this world might be. The pilgrims are guided towards such deep-seated sensitivity and kindness that as long as they are enshrouded in the pilgrim’s garb, they are disallowed from doing certain things they are normally free to do at all times else. For instance, pilgrims are not allowed to pluck any grass and hunt any animals; they are not even allowed to point out the location of game to a hunter. Idle chatting and vain activities are also forbidden so that the heart may concentrate only on higher realities.

On a similar note, sacrificing an animal with the intention of seeking closeness to the Lord also has both outward and inward requirements, as is the case with all other acts of worship. Although the process of sacrificing an animal comprises certain rituals one must follow, the chief aspect of this act is the performer’s intention, whose place is, again, in the heart. It is the quality of the intention which determines whether or not the sacrifice is accepted in the presence of the Almighty. The Divine instruction in this regard is clear:

لَنْ يَنَالَ اللّٰهَ لُحُومُهَا وَ لاَ دِمَآ ؤُهَا وَ لٰكِنْ يَنَالُهُ التَّقْوٰى مِنْكُمْ

“It is not their meat, nor their blood that reaches the Almighty; it is your piety that reaches Him.” (al-Hajj, 37)

In light of the above Quranic verse, we may say that if a person sacrifices an animal under social duress, that is, an anxiety over the possible backlash of the Muslim community should he abstain from fulfilling the requirement, his deed will not grant him the pleasure of the Almighty. A vivid example of this is mentioned in the Quran in the accounts of Prophet Adam’s -upon him blessings and peace- two sons. Cain had presented a sacrifice to Allah, glory unto Him, but halfheartedly, merely to comply with the rule. And expectedly his sacrifice was rejected. His brother, Abel, on the other hand, presented his own sacrifice sincerely and righteously, consequent upon which his sacrifice was accepted. The related Quranic verse reads, “And recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! They each presented a sacrifice [to The Almighty]: it was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter, ‘Be sure I will kill you.’ ‘Surely’, said the former, ‘The Almighty only accepts from the righteous.’” (al-Maida, 27)

All the above mentioned points indicate that the acceptability and integrity of all acts of worship depend primarily on moral and spiritual maturity and consciousness in which they are offered. This serves as a strong testimony to the necessity of spiritual education and the indispensability of purifying the heart.

In this conjunction, however, there is to be found a further delicate point. It is true that all deeds of worship ought to be performed with sincerity and piety, free from the devastating intrusion of any kind of ostentation. But it would even be a worse mistake for the servant to stop short at offering the obligatory deeds of worship due to the fear that he may not live up to the required standards and hence render all his efforts futile. One is not expected to discard the duty of offering deeds of worship; much rather, he is expected to put in his best effort to enhance their quality as much as possible through adjusting his inner world by virtue of increasing his level of sincerity and piety. The path of spiritual progress is, after all, full of difficulties, and it demands a great struggle against sensual tendencies. There is no such thing as reaching the ultimate level swiftly and with leisurely ease. Sincerity is the highest point of spiritual advancement and climbing to this point requires a gradual, step-by-step progress. And as essential as it is to apply personal effort on this path, it is more important to pray to receive Divine help and guidance.

In view of the fact that the quality of one’s deeds relies on his moral and spiritual condition, the Sufi way extends an indispensable helping hand in guiding the heart towards its proper direction and reason for existence. It is thus not surprising to observe that attempts which  portray Islam as a dry and empty collection of regulations always end up in a downright rejection of the Sufi way. Such a conclusion is only a natural outcome of their sterile course of thinking.

That mistakes, misuses and misrepresentations figure in all scholarly disciplines is an unquestionable fact of matter. Religious disciplines are no different, including Sufism, the essence and spiritual dimension of Islamic learning. Yet, authorities in any given field can distinguish right from wrong regarding the matter under question. In this manner, any deliberate or absentminded attempt to show that certain arbitrary mistakes and misuses are in fact peculiar to the field of Sufism, would be dubious. Competence and incompetence in the persons involved can be found across all scholarly fields; and there is no justifiable reason to single out Sufism in this regard and employ some incompetent cases in point to devalue its position within the spectrum of Islamic religious disciplines.

There might be some incompetent people who refer to themselves as Sufis and act supposedly on its behalf, though in reality they might in fact only be exploiting it. There is no reason to generalize their particular situations and extend it to the eligible Sufis of competence who practice this discipline strictly in line with the Islamic religious tradition. Rejecting Sufism as an Islamic field on this ground alone is therefore implausible. To downright reject the Sufi way due to certain misrepresentations is comparable to rejecting the entire field of medicine due to some medical mistreatments; and there indeed might be some practitioners in the field of medicine, who misuse and exploit this discipline. Therefore both theoretically and practically, it is unfeasible to disclaim Sufism as not being essential to Islamic learning.

The Sufi way cannot be understood based on the practices of self-acclaimed Sufis, incompetent and of ill-intent, who stake a claim to being eligible representatives of this tradition. Since Sufism can be understood and observed only by those of spiritual depth, even the simplest minds can distinguish the authentic Sufi way from the inauthentic, based on the enormous difference of quality between their practices.

Sufism cannot be understood on the basis of casual generalizations either, as it is a matter of heart, a state-of-mind founded upon passion and love. To describe Sufism in a way that does justice to it, to those who do not have the least share of love is ultimately a vain endeavor; comparable to describing colors to person who was born blind.

The more man moves away from contemplating on his inner world, the more he becomes a powerless imitator. Neither can he understand his own reality, nor can he plunge into the depths of his soul. The best he can do is to try to imitate those around. Unable to even enjoy the great potential lying dormant in his heart, he is all the more distant from setting an example within his community.  Gaining closeness to the Lord and reaching Him becomes possible, only after nurturing a sublime moral quality that renounces all kinds of temporal desires and concerns.

At its core, Sufism is a science about mankind. When a man sets himself free from earthly concerns and concentrates on his soul and spirit, he finds himself before the gates of the palace of wisdoms and realities. The real Sufis are those who understand the Quran and make it their distinctive guide in upholding their true faith. A Sufi is a person who feels responsible in the presence of the Lord for the eternal wellbeing of the community in which he lives.

On one occasion, the saint Najmaddin Kubra joined his disciples to offer the funeral prayer of a righteous man who had just passed away. Towards the end of the prayer, when, ritually, they started reminding the dead of the required information in the grave, Kubra smiled. His disciples were surprised to see Kubra smile on such an occasion and could not help but ask him of the reason. First, he did not want to explain the reason, but when his students insisted, Kubra said, “The heart of the man reminding the dead of the required information was dead and heedless, while the heart of the dead was awake and mindful. I was astonished at the fact that a heedless person was trying to help someone mindful, whose heart in reality was awake.”

In a sense, the case of those who reject Sufism supposedly for the sake of upholding the integrity of knowledge, is as astounding as the case of a dead heart trying to revive a heart that is already alive. Already proven is the success of Sufis throughout centuries in keeping religious life alive, passing it onto following generations, guiding the general public and delivering the message of Islam. A contemporary Muslim scholar testifies to this fact and confesses, “I was brought up in a rational manner. My jurisprudential studies and investigations made me reject everything that was not explained and proved to me in a convincing way. Undoubtedly to this day, I fulfill my religious responsibilities, such as daily prayers and fasting, not on account of sufistic motivations but from a jurisprudential obligation.  I say to myself, ‘The Almighty is my Lord, my Protector. He has commanded me to do these and I have to do them. Other than that, rights and responsibilities are mutually dependent. The Almighty has decreed these for me so that I could benefit from them, which means I am responsible for thanking Him.’

But since I started living in the West, in Paris to be precise, I was astounded to observe that it is the words of Sufis like Ibn Arabi and Rumi that primarily lead Christians to embrace Islam; not the views of Muslim jurisprudents or theologians. I have stood witness to this on many an occasion. On being asked a question regarding a certain Islamic topic, my answer would always prove unconvincing if based on rational proofs and reasoning. But offering a sufistic explanation would always prove successful; though in time, I lost my efficiency in this regard. I nonetheless realized that greater service to Islam, at least in today’s Europe and Africa, lied not in the sword or reason but in the heart, namely in Sufism; as was the case during the time of Ghazan Khan following the blistering devastation of Muslim lands in the hands of  Hulagu.

Upon this observation, I started examining some works of Sufism; and this opened the eye of my heart. I realized that the path of Sufism during the lifetime of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and in the practice of eminent Sufi figures, was not too busy oneself with certain scholarly words and formulations, but to proceed on the swiftest path leading man to the Lord and to seek the ways to improve human character. Man looks for reasons behind the responsibilities placed on his shoulders. Rational and material explanations regarding the metaphysical world move us away from the goal. It is only metaphysical or spiritual explanations that satisfy human beings.”[3]

In light of these words, we can draw the conclusion that any attempt to reject Sufism, whose agreement with the Quran and Sunnah is unquestionable, is tantamount to cutting down a fruitful tree, a grave sin to commit indeed. In the words of Rumi, “Do not blame the rose, if your nose cannot smell.”

Another important aspect of Sufism in our contemporary world lies in the method it applies in correcting human character and behavior, conducive to transforming one into a better human being. Our noble Shariah aims at guiding human beings by drawing to their attention to the awaiting rewards and punishments both in this life and in the Hereafter.  As for Sufism, it uses affection and love. The contemporary human being suffers in the spiritual depression of being distanced from religion and under the excruciating burden of sin. Undeniable is the fact that extending forgiveness, lenience and affection will exercise a greater effect in correcting and saving such people. From this perspective, today’s world stands in dire need of the Sufi method, both theoretically and practically, as much as it needs spiritual realities. Educating and guiding people under the shade of mercy, tolerance and affection would undoubtedly culminate in a universal success. Approaching these vulnerable souls suffering under the tyranny of reason and sensuality in an Islamic manner and using such positive and encouraging notions to lead them to a better direction, will surely yield more fruitful results than threatening them with certain punishments.

Since Sufism regards the immorality and transgression of humankind as a side effect of a lack of love, its method prioritizes positive notions and endorses them as bases for delivering the Islamic message. By nature, human beings always yearn for affection; they therefore embrace the approaches adopted over the centuries by saints like Abdulqadir Jilani, Yunus Emre, Bahauddin Naqshbandi and Rumi.

The below anecdote is moving in terms of reflecting modern man’s yearning and love for saints of the yester-years. Muhammad Iqbal, the great contemporary Muslim intellectual and a Rumi enthusiast, was on board on a flight to Turkey. The moment the plane entered the Turkish airspace, the great thinker stood up from his seat and remained standing for a while. When the people accompanying asked him as to why he had done so, Iqbal evocatively replied, “These are the lands of Rumi’s grave and of the meritorious people who burdened the great responsibility of protecting Islam against its enemies. Were it not for the Turks, Islam would have receded back into the Arabian Peninsula. Out of the great respect I have in my heart for this great scholar and people, I felt compelled to stand up in reverence.”

The moving example above shows that a true Sufi may exercise an influence that stands the test of time over many centuries. Many centuries after his passing away, Rumi, one of the greatest representatives of the Sufi way, drew the admiration of another great mind of the caliber of Iqbal. The fact that Rumi’s teachings could wield a momentous influence in helping Iqbal shape his character and adorn it with love, passion, sensitivity, and knowledge, in a sense, attests to the necessity of the Sufi path in our own time. Sufism unites hearts from the East to the West, maturing and exalting them in the process; and this is an undeniable reality that encompasses all ages and generations.

To be a Sufi is to be equipped with exoteric sciences and realities and to thereby reach beyond the climes of the heart-world.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

[1]        Shaqq-i Sadr also called Sharh-i Sadr, is a term referring to an operation performed by angels on Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace-. During this operation, the angles cleaved open the Prophet’s chest -upon him blessings and peace- and filled it with Divine light and tranquility, so as to impart onto it a spiritual expansion. The Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underwent this operation twice in his lifetime; first during his childhood and second right before his ascension to heavens. The Qur’an refers to this incident saying, “Have We not expanded for you [O Muhammad] your chest.” (Inshirah,1)

[2]        For a similar narration see also Bukhari, Tawhid, 23.

[3]        M. Aziz Lahhabi, Islam Sahsiyetciligi, trans. I. Hakki Akin, pp. 114-115, footnote 8, Istanbul, 1972. This footnote exists in a letter written by Muhammad Hamidullah to the translator, dated September 27, 1967. (Taken from Mustafa Kara, Metinlerle Gunumuz Tasavvuf Hareketleri, pp. 542-543)

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