What is the definition of Sufism? Here’s answer…

Sufism is a zest or a state-of-mind, rather than a mere statement; a matter of existential embodiment rather than simply knowing. The more one savors and experiences the Sufi way, the deeper one becomes in the knowledge pertaining to spiritual realities. It is otherwise impossible to provide a comprehensive explanation of the reality of Sufism by means only of words. Therefore, saints of various intellectual and cultural backgrounds have offered a variety of definitions of the Sufi way, reflecting their personal spiritual states at that given moment; which makes Sufism a highly multidimensional discipline.

Saints and their disciples progress on the spiritual path compliant with their inborn and acquired capacities, and in proportion to the spiritual inspirations their hearts experience. From this perspective, one may easily come across different explanations of the same religious matters given by a number of different saints, to the extent that these explanations are conditioned by and depend upon their peculiar spiritual states and also upon the specific character of the Divine manifestations they receive in their hearts. Nonetheless, each of these various definitions of the Sufi path given by saints is correct and justified by the personal experience of each. As for an objective perception of the essence of Sufism today, one may only arrive at a broad understanding of it, based again on the various definitions saints have articulated in the past.

Considering the shared aspects of the various definitions of the Sufi way, we may say that Sufism is a discipline that leads believers to moral perfection by virtue of improving their inner, spiritual dimensions and directs towards attaining a proximity to the Real by helping them embody exemplary moral traits and conduct, guiding them thereby to the knowledge of Lord.

Below are just a few definitions of Sufism offered by saints in accordance with the spiritual manifestations they were privileged with:

  1. The Sufi way personifies exemplary character traits (akhlaq) and propriety (adab).

Saving a believer from blind imitation (taqlid) in matters of faith, exemplary character traits give birth to the consciousness of ihsan, which itself imparts uprightness and integrity to the thoughts and acts of human beings. Ihsan is to permanently implant a mindset in the heart of a believer, crystallized by a constant awareness of the Lord, as if the believer sees Him. Gradually, ihsan becomes an essential and governing force behind all the actions and behavior of a believer throughout his life. Abu’l-Husayn an-Nuri explains Sufism accordingly when he says, “Sufism consists not of forms and sciences but of good moral qualities (akhlaq). If it were about forms, one would have taken it by means of personal striving; if it were about sciences, one would have learned it by means of conventional education. For this reason, neither can forms nor science merely make one reach the purpose. Sufism is to succeed in embodying the qualities of the Lord.” The special emphasis an-Nuri places on his definition is thus the strong connection between the Sufi way and the embodiment of exemplary character traits it leads to.

Even though one might not find the term tasawwuf mentioned during the lifetime of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, its essence and reality nonetheless did exist. What we mean by the expression “exemplary moral qualities” is none other than the moral qualities of the Noble Messenger -upon him blessings and peace-; qualities which the believer is expected to embody at the expense of his deficient traits. The integrity of the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- morality is confirmed by the Quran:

وَ اِنَّكَ لَعَلٰى خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ

“And indeed, you are of a great moral character.” (al-Qalam, 4)

Similarly, when inquired about the morals of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, Aisha –Allah be well-pleased with her- replied said, “His morals were that of the Quran.” (Muslim, Musafirin, 139) When a servant embodies the exemplary moral traits laid down by in the Quran and abides by the Quranic principles, he virtually becomes the Quran come-to-life. Contemplating on the meaning of the Quran, reciting it in reverence, and practicing its instructions represent the apex of good morality.


The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was sent by the Almighty with the mission of enlightening the universe entire, the whole spatio-temporal scope, from the very onset his prophethood until the Final Hour. Thanks to reliable historical and scholarly records, we are gifted today with a strenuously detailed account of the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- life and times. Upon glancing at these records, one is unmistakably struck by many an extraordinary aspect of his life; fitting, as he represents the quintessential perfection of humankind and morality. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself highlights his universal mission when he states, “I have been sent for nothing but to perfect good morals.” (Imam Malik, Muwatta, Husnu’l-Khulq 8). Confirming this is the verse of the Holy Quran, which refers to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- as “the quintessential example” (uswah hasanah): “You have a quintessential example in The Almighty’s Messenger for whosoever hopes for The Almighty and the Last Day, and remembers The Almighty often.” (al-Ahzab, 21)

Even after the physical departure of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, the Lord will always hail saintly scholars from among people, as a gift to humankind and more importantly, to perpetuate the practice of good morals. These scholars are described in a hadith as “the heirs of prophets” (warathatu’l-anbiya)[1]. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- offers a further description of such scholars, saying, “The most perfect believer with respect to faith is he who exudes the best moral traits.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, II, 250) These words allude to the fact that good morals are the fruits of faith and the signs of its perfection. Consequently, saints are spiritual guides who have been privileged with the good fortune of having personified the moral qualities of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Correlated is the definition of the Sufi way offered by Abu Muhammad al-Jariri, according to which it is “…to embody good morals and to refrain from the immoral.”

As demanding an undertaking it is to beautify heart with good morals and cleanse it from the immoral, it is nevertheless essential in order to attain to eternal happiness and salvation. In highlighting the grueling nature of this awaiting task, Abu Hashim as-Sufi says, “Eradicating an existing conceit from the heart is more difficult than digging a mountain with a needle.” Similar are the words of Abu Bakr al-Kattani: “Sufism is about morality. A person morally better than you is at the same time a person spiritually purer than you.”

The history of mankind is replete with the manifestations of the exemplary conducts of prophets. Prophet Yusuf -upon him peace-, for instance, exemplifies one of the most remarkable instances of moral excellence in history. As reported by the Quran, Yusuf –upon him peace- not only did not retaliate against his brothers who had, years ago, committed the terrible crime of throwing him into a well in the middle of nowhere, he displayed an unrivalled show of mercy and forgiveness when meeting them years down the track, assuring them that “No blame will there be upon you today. The Almighty will forgive you; and He is the most merciful of the merciful.” (Yusuf, 92)

The ultimate goal a Sufi strives for is to emulate Ibrahim -upon him blessings and peace- in purging his heart of everything worldly and filling it with obedience to Divine commands; Ismail -upon him peace- in unconditional submission to the Almighty and contentedness with Divine fate; and Ayyub -upon him peace- in enshrouding the heart in unyielding patience. Spiritually, it is to personify the sorrow of Dawud -upon him peace- and the abstinence of Isa -upon him peace-.

A Sufi’s heart ought to imitate the heart of Musa –upon him peace-, in being immersed in spiritual joy and yearning for the Lord in His remembrance, and above all, the heart of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- in sincerity, love and devotion for Allah, glory unto Him. Abu Hafs al-Haddad gives an inclusive summary of all these descriptions when he says, “Sufism is about good propriety (adab).” In explanation of adab, Rumi says,

O gentleman! Beware that adab is the soul in your body;

Adab is the eye of the Men of the Lord and the light of their hearts.

If you want to crush Satan’s head, open your eyes and see;

It is adab that depresses Satan.

If you cannot find adab in a man, he is not in fact a human being.

It is adab that separates mankind from animals.

In the same context Rumi also says,

My reason asked my heart, “What is faith (iman)?”

My heart whispered into the ear of my reason, “Faith is all about propriety (adab).”

Another poet versifies,

Adab is a crown sent down from the Lord’s light;

Place it on your head and be spared from all plights.

For a long time, therefore, it has been customary to have a cautionary signboard at Sufi lodges that read, “Adab Ya-Hu!”; a motto with a multidimensional meaning. While it reminds the reader how essential it is to live a life of propriety, from another vantage, it is at the same time a plea, in the sense of “O Lord, give us adab!

  1. The Sufi way is about purifying the heart and the soul.

Since man has come to this world for trial, he is afflicted, until death, with the presence of the ego or the lower self (nafs), which contains innumerable negative aspects. Even if one reaches the highest point of sainthood, he always remains face to face and under the threat of three main obstacles: the temporal world, ego and Satan. He is always vulnerable to the deceiving tricks, whispers and traps set by these three elements. The merit of servanthood starts the moment a believer turns his heart to the Lord, and by eliminating the dangers caused by the three aforementioned elements, thereby saves himself from the deceptive glitters of worldly pleasures.

The purification of the heart and soul is an essential undertaking in rectifying the evil inclinations existent in human nature and subsequently planting the seeds of piety (taqwa) therein. For this reason, every human being is responsible for acquiring knowledge of the Almighty, in proportion to his personal capacity. This responsibility also includes moving a step beyond the conventional knowledge of the Almighty to attain the real knowledge of Him, and to complement this with righteous deeds. Such is the meaning of “servanthood”, in the truest sense. Actualizing this kind of servanthood requires one to embark upon purifying the heart and soul; and this entails a by-passing or a purging of the obstacles set by the ego and tuning all desires to the eternal. Such is the only way to reach the Lord both Here and in the Hereafter.

The innate nature of the heart is that it is the precinct of the Divine Gaze; in other words, it is the point on which the Sight of the Lord is fixed, so to speak. As such, the heart is open and receptive to Divine inspiration on the condition that it is cleansed of every kind of worldly desires and selfish concerns. A heart dominated by these meager desires is spiritually impure and therefore unreceptive to the inspirations and disclosures coming from the way of the Lord. Living up to this principle does not necessarily require that one loves no person other than the Lord; though having said that, those triumphant in attaining a heart of purity at the end of this road have developed an immunity against the love of anything else other than the Lord (masiwa). Given that common human beings, however, cannot entirely erase their love for ‘things’ of the world from their hearts, it is hoped that they will in fact benefit from these metaphorical loves, as long as they do not allow them to weigh heavier than their love for the Real.

Recalling the function and status of the heart, both spiritual and material, will help us better appreciate the vitality of purifying it. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- states, “There is a piece of flesh in human body…if good then so is the whole body; and if bad, so the entire body becomes bad. Beware…that this (piece of flesh) is the heart.” (Bukhari, Iman, 39)

Rumi gives a symbolic explanation of the same reality and states that when a person tries to fill an empty sack, he needs to make sure that the sack does not have any holes; otherwise his efforts are useless. Likewise, Rumi continues, human deeds become meaningful and lead to eternal salvation only if performed with a purified heart; for the rewards of deeds depends on the intention, and the intention itself is a deed exclusive to the heart. In light of this strong connection, one needs to correct his intention and adorn it by means of sincerity; but this is not a simple undertaking. Only qualified masters can guide one in the process of purifying the heart, at the end of which one can attain the desired spiritual state. Saints train their disciples in educating the heart, helping them reach the spiritual perfection of ihsan, where they acquire a spiritually innervated heart that feels the presence of the Lord at all times.

Reaching this said level of spiritual perfection requires the purification of the heart from all desires and objects other than the Almighty. A heart endowed with such quality starts perceiving subtle and deep realities and becomes the locale for the manifestation of Divine Names and spiritual secrets, the depth of which depend on the depth of spiritual maturity the heart has acquired. Knowledge of the Divine (marifatullah), which is to know the Lord in and through the heart, appears inside a heart of such caliber; and this appearance signals the beginning of the transformation of ordinary knowledge (ilm) into real knowledge or wisdom (irfan).

The Quran declares that only those who humbly present themselves to the presence of the Almighty with a sound and purified heart, will be able to reach eternal salvation:

يَوْمَ لاَ يَنْفَعُ مَالٌ وَ لاَ بَنُونَ اِلاَّ مَنْ اَتَى اللّٰهَ بِقَلْبٍ سَلِيمٍ

“The Day when there will not benefit [anyone]wealth or children, but only one who comes to The Almighty with a sound heart.” (as-Shuara, 88-89) In contrast, hearts that are contaminated by evils and hardened from becoming distant from the Lord are bound to perish, as the Quran pronounces, “By the soul and He who shaped it and inspired it to wickedness and righteousness! Prosperous is he who purifies it, and failed has he who seduces it.” (as-Shams, 7-10) In line, the Quran also reveals, “Then woe to those whose hearts are hardened against the remembrance of the Lord. Those are in manifest error.” (az-Zumar, 22). Inspired by these Quranic proclamations are the words of Abu Said al-Kharraz, which shed great light onto our current discussion: “A perfect man is the one whose heart Lord has purified and filled with spiritual light.”

  1. The Sufi way is a ceaseless spiritual combat.

Belonging to Junayd al-Baghdadi, the above definition underlines the fact that Sufism is a lifelong struggle (jihad) against the evil temptations of the ego. This struggle aims at bringing all the evil aspects of the ego under control. Taken in the conventional sense, a battle lasts for only a certain period of time; yet the battle against the ego has no ceasefire until death. The Quran instructs, “And worship your Lord until there comes to you the certainty [i.e., death].” (al-Hijr, 99) The Almighty warns His servants against heedlessness, insofar as it opens gates of the heart to the tricks of the ego and leaves it vulnerable.

وَ اذْكُرْ رَبَّكَ فِى نَفْسِكَ تَضَرُّعًا وَ خِيفَةً وَ دُونَ الْجَهْرِ

مِنَ الْقَوْلِ بِالْغُدُوِّّ وَ اْلاٰ  صَالِ وَ لاَ تَكُنْ مِنَ الْغَافِلِينَ

The Lord states in the Quran, “And remember your Lord within yourself in humility and in fear without being apparent in speech in the mornings and the evenings. And do not be among the heedless.” (al-Araf, 205)

In the same context the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- uses the term “the greater jihad” when describing the imperative struggle to be undertaken against the ego. As they were returning from the battle of Tabuk, referred to as the ‘Battle of Hardship’ owing to its painstaking nature, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- turned to Companions and said, “Now we are returning from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad.” The companions felt amazed and asked the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, “What could be a greater jihad than this one?” to which the Prophet Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- responded, “Indeed, we are now returning from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad…the jihad against the ego.”[2]

In expressing his thoughts on the significance of the delicate balance Islam establishes between the smaller and greater jihads, the contemporary thinker Roger Garaudy says, “Sufism is a completely Islamic spiritual education and, in fact, refers to an inner struggle against all kinds of natural temptations that put a person away from the original purpose of his creation and enslave to him to the ego. In Islamic terminology, this exertion is called ‘the greater jihad’. As for ‘the smaller jihad’, it is undertaken against all kinds of authority, wealth, and false pieces of knowledge that place Muslims away from the path of their Almighty; Muslims carry out the smaller jihad in order to make an effort to actualize the unity and harmony of the path of their Lord. It is the balance between these two types of jihad (greater and smaller) that assures the happiness and soundness of individual and social life.”[3]

  1. Sufism means sincerity (ikhlas)

Sufism means sincerity in the presence of the Lord. In its terminological sense, sincerity refers to offering all acts of worship solely for the sake of the Almighty, without any other consideration intruding on the heart. The operation of cleansing all kinds of worldly expectations from the heart and focusing only on the pleasure of the Lord is a required and central virtue in Islam. The mere objective of all acts of worship is to attain the pleasure of the Lord; and if a person loses his concentration and allows the intrusion of secondary, trivial concerns, the proper term to describe this situation would be insincerity or lip-service. Acts of worship offered with a mindset are worthless in the sight of the Divine. Sincerity is, therefore, the most important feature in rendering a deed of worship accepted by the Lord.

Sincerity is to protect the heart against all kinds of worldly desires and aspirations and render closeness to the Lord the only motivation that stirs the heart into practice.  Sincerity further leads the servant to the pleasure of the Lord, the ultimate good ever attainable. In the Quran, the Almighty repeatedly underlines the vital significance of sincerity in acts of worship performed by His servants and reveals, “Indeed, We have sent down to you the Book, [O Muhammad], in truth. So worship The Almighty, [being]sincere to Him in religion;” (az-Zumar, 2) and “Say, ‘Indeed I have been commanded to worship The Almighty, [being]sincere to Him in religion.’” (az-Zumar, 11) The Quranic verses further reveal that on the brink of being expelled from the presence of the Almighty, Satan retorted, “My Lord, because You have put me in error, I will surely make [disobedience]attractive to them [i.e., mankind] on earth, and I will mislead them all. Except, among them, Your sincere and purified servants.” (al-Hijr, 39-40)

Sufism is to salvage oneself from the hands of the ego by doing every single thing for the sake of the Almighty and by acknowledging the fact that all blessings and honor come only from Him. Regardless of the spiritual level or station one might be at, one must always be weary of giving in to self-importance and conceit, a mindset that is reminiscent of the Divine revelation the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- received when returning, to Medina, from the victory of Badr:

فَلَمْ تَقْتُلُوهُمْ وَ لٰكِنَّ اللّٰهَ قَتَلَهُمْ وَ مَا رَمَيْتَ اِذْ رَمَيْتَ وَ لٰكِنَّ اللّٰهَ رَمٰى

“And you did not kill them, but it was The Almighty Who killed them. And you threw not, [O Muhammad], but it was The Almighty Who threw.” (al-Anfal,17)[4] Therefore, a servant must always be aware of his vulnerability and his state of being a created human, and realize that every blessing, victory and success comes only from the Almighty as a gift. Beguiled into thinking otherwise will only diminish the rewards of deeds, if not make them disappear entirely.

Failure to conduct oneself sincerely in deeds of worship and allowing the ego to gain the upper hand incurs disastrous consequences, as made mention in a hadith narrated by Abu Hurayra –Allah be well-pleased with him-, where the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- says, “The first of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgment will be a man who died as a martyr. He will be brought (before the Judgment Seat). The Almighty will make him recount all the blessings He had bestowed upon him in life and he will recount each of them appreciatively. The Almighty will then ask, ‘What did you do in return?’ He will reply, ‘I fought for You until I died as a martyr.’ To that the Almighty will reply, ‘You are lying. You fought for the sake of being called a ‘brave warrior’; and so were you called.’ Then the Almighty will decree and the man will be dragged with his face downward and cast into Hell. Then will be brought forward a man who had acquired knowledge, passed it onto others and recited the Quran. He will be brought; and the Almighty will make him recount His blessings and the man will recount them appreciatively. Then the Almighty will ask, ‘What did you do in return?’ He will say, ‘I acquired knowledge and disseminated it and recited the Quran seeking Your pleasure.’ The Almighty will say, ‘You are lying. You acquired knowledge so that you might be called a scholar, and you recited the Quran only so that you might be called a reciter; and so were you called.’ Then the Divine order will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into the Fire. Then will be brought a man whom The Almighty had made abundantly rich and had granted every kind of wealth. He will be brought and the Almighty will make him recount His blessings and he will recount them appreciatively. The Almighty will then ask, ‘What did you do in return?’ He will say, ‘I spent money in every cause in which You wished that it should be spent.’ The Almighty will say, ‘You are lying. You did so that you might be looked up to as a generous fellow; and so it was said.’ Then will The Almighty pass orders and he will be dragged with his face downward and thrown into Hell.” (Muslim, ‘Imara, 152)

In the same context, Rumi says, “O heedless! I wish you had turned your face sincerely towards the Almighty when you fell prostrate in worship and known thoroughly the real meaning of saying, ‘Exalted is my Lord, freed of all kinds of deficiencies i.e., if you had prostrated yourself in worship with your heart, not just with your body!”

Acts of worship that are not performed in sincerity are morally defective and are contaminated with idolatry. The key to purifying acts of worship is sincerity. Any given deed offered insincerely is of no benefit to the offerer. After the affirmation of true faith, the most emphasized Quranic command is the act of ritual prayer; yet those who offer ritual prayer devoid of sincerity are sternly warned, as made explicit in the following: “So woe to those who pray [but]who are heedless of their prayer.” (al-Maun, 4-5) True to this spirit, Junayd al-Baghdadi says, “Sincerity means purifying a deed from moral corruption.” Another saint throws light on the subtle balance to be upheld in any given act of worship when he says, “Being pretentious and self-congratulating with respect to being sincere is itself a kind of insincerity.” Insofar as the mindset of sincerity is concerned, the biggest danger looms when a servant begins to hold an unshakeable conviction in his own piety. In this connection, the Messenger of Allah –upon him blessings and peace- says, “Be sincere in religion. If you do so, then even a small amount of deeds would be enough for you.” (Hakim, Mustadrak, IV, 341)  In another, hadith the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underlines the same principle in the words, “Verily the Almighty does not look to your faces and your wealth, but looks to your heart and to your deeds.” (Muslim, Birr, 34)

  1. Sufism means standing upright on the straight path (istiqamah)

In Sufi terminology, istiqamah is to hold tightly onto the Quran and Sunnah. In the Quran, the Almighty commands the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- and the believers with istiqamah, declaring,

فَاسْتَقِمْ كَمَآ اُمِرْتَ وَ مَنْ تَابَ مَعَكَ وَ لاَ تَطْغَوْا

“So stand firm [in the straight path]as you have been commanded, [you]and those who have turned with you [to The Almighty]; and do not transgress.” (Hud, 112).

It has been reported that regarding this chapter of the Quran the Prophet –upon him blessings and peace-, “Chapter Hud made me age” (Tirmidhi, Tafsir Surah, 56/6). Commentators have explained the Divine command that placed the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- under so heavy a spiritual burden[5], as “O Prophet, you must act in accordance with the morals and regulations of the Quran morality and regulations and represent a living example of uprightness, so that there should not be any doubt and uncertainty regarding your personality. Do not pay attention to the hurtful remarks that come your way from the idolaters and hypocrites and instead let the Almighty deal with them. Stand firm and upright on the straight path with regards to your social and individual responsibilities, as you are commanded and do not deviate from the straight path. Do not fear any kind of difficulty that you might think would prevent you from fulfilling your prophetic mission. No matter how great an obstacle you may encounter, your Lord, and your Lord alone, is your helper.”[6]

Regarding this Quranic verse, Abdullah ibn Abbas –Allah be well-pleased with him- comments, “In the intensity in which it addresses the Messenger of Allah –upon him blessings and peace-, there no other Quranic statement more forceful and challenging than this” (Nawawi, Sharh-i Sahih Muslim, II, 9). Although this address, on the surface, is directed straight at the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself, the challenge it conveys actually covers all believers; and from this vantage, the apprehension the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- was not of his own well-being but, more so, the well-being and ability of his followers to remain unwavering on the upright path. In any case, the Prophet’s –upon him blessings and peace- personal uprightness is already confirmed by the Quran, which declares him as being “…on a straight path.” (Yasin, 4) Therefore, what had actually made the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- age was the unfathomable care he felt for the eternal salvation of his followers.

Since the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was designated as the final prophet of mankind, his message will remain forever alive, as the exclusive guide in showing mankind the way to straight path that shall lead them to the Almighty. The Quran avows that the Lord’s love and compassion for human beings depends on their obedience to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, as mentioned in the following verses,

قُلْ اِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللّٰهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِى يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللّٰهُ وَ يَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ

وَ اللّٰهُ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ

“Say [O Muhammad], ‘If you do love the Lord, then follow me, [so]The Almighty will love you and forgive you your sins. For The Almighty is All-forgiving, All-merciful;’” (Al-i Imran, 31)

“Say, ‘Obey The Almighty and obey the Messenger … If you obey him, you will be [rightly]guided.’” (an-Nur, 54)

It is within this framework that Dhunnun-i Misri says, “Whoever follows the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah, glory unto Him, in practice proves the truth of his love for the Lord.” The words of Bayazid Bistami are of a similar tone: “Even if you see a person sitting cross-legged high in the air, look at whether or not he observes Divine commands, follows the Sunnah and observes the limits set by the Almighty’s rights. Should you fail to detect these, do not announce his sainthood, merely on the basis of his extraordinary performance.” The essence and blissful consequence of remaining steadfast on “the Straight Path” is indicated by the Quran, which assures that “…whoever obeys the Almighty and the Messenger, those will be with the ones upon whom the Almighty has bestowed favor of the prophets, the steadfast affirmers of truth, the martyrs, and the righteous. Ah! What a beautiful fellowship!” (an-Nisa, 69). As the Quranic verse indicates, the straight path, the observing of which rests on obeying the Lord and His Messenger, is the path that the ‘chosen’ people follow. The gist of standing firm on the straight path is faith and piety of a kind that imparts a continual consciousness of the Lord, and only in the heart do these two elements reside. Standing firm on the straight path, therefore, denotes the process of uniting such a heart with the body. Faith, sincerity and moderation in the heart compel one to stand steady on the straight path and render that stand permanent.

The Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- has said, “As long as the tongue does not stand firm on the straight path, the heart cannot do so; and as long as the heart does not stand firm on the straight path, faith cannot be strong.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, III, 198) A Companion once sought the advice of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, who then counseled him to say, “…I affirm my faith in the Almighty and then remain steadfast to it.” (Muslim, Iman, 62)

Neither is there any spiritual state higher than consistently standing firm on the straight path under all circumstances, nor is there any Divine command more difficult in realizing. Standing firm on the straight path is to uphold moderacy in all deeds of worship, without venturing into extremity or insufficiency, and remaining relentless on the path of Allah, glory unto Him. It also and essentially includes performing Divine commands as perfectly as one’s personal capacity allows. Owing to its painstaking difficulty, standing firm on the straight path has therefore been considered the greatest extraordinary feat (karamah) a saint can ever exhibit. Saints have always attached great importance to this notion of remaining upright; in other words, of being persistent and patient in following the enlightening path of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Rumi explains this fact very nicely when he says,

As long as my soul stays in my body,
I am a servant of the Quran and a dust under the Blessed Prophet’s feet;
If anyone relates from my words anything other than this,
I am free of his words and himself.
If anyone goes to sit a table other than the Prophet’s table,
Beware that Satan will eat from the same pot together with him;
Because the food eaten in any table other than the table of wisdom
Gets stuck in the eater’s throat…and even pierces through it.

  1. The Sufi way is (rida) and submission (taslimiyyah)

The term taslimiyyah denotes submission, obedience and accepting something without any disagreement. The word Islam comes from the same root. Sufism strives to establish the sentiments of contentment and submission to the Lord deep in the heart, so as to open up an avenue for the servant to come closer to his Lord and constantly feel the Divine Gaze watching over him at all times. Life on Earth is filled with pains, concerns and afflictions, not to mention the fact of having to deal with the innumerable kinds of traps installed by the ego. All these may start decreasing, only when the servant embraces contentment and submission; as they reduce the pain of afflictions to a bare nothing, the moment the servant begins to appreciate that all sufferings are rather blessings in disguise handed out by the Lord. That is when pain becomes a motive for celebration, rather than complaint.

Taslimiyyah further indicates the wholehearted acceptance, by a servant, of everything the hand of fate deals out to him; a resignation towards everything predestined, only of course after taking the necessary precautions from beforehand. The most vivid example of the practice of taslimiyyah is perhaps to be found in the attitudes both Ibrahim -upon him peace- and his son Ismail -upon him peace-. Upon being called by the Divine to sacrifice his son, Ibrahim –upon him peace- accepted the chilling command without hesitation, while Ismail –upon him peace- was ever resigned to the Divine command that decreed his sacrifice. The Holy Quran pays homage to their exemplary attitudes, where they are both praised for having “…submitted their wills to the Almighty.” (as-Saffat, 103)

A servant should submit himself to the commands and prohibitions of the Almighty and rest content with everything the Almighty inevitably decides for him. Receiving difficulties and trials with patience and placing all trust in the Lord, are indispensable. After all, the path to spiritual perfection is mapped out with trials. In connection, Shaqiq al-Balkhi says, “If only one knew of the rewards for suffering, he would never wish to get rid of it.” Well aware of the subtle balance and intimacy of all opposing notions, saints have viewed both grief and pleasure from the same perspective. Since overstressing sadness and, in like measure, exaggerating joy are actually nothing but traps of the ego, it is vital to receive all things in contentment and submission, knowing that what destined to always and irrevocably takes place.

Passion and Divine love are another two aspects integral to taslimiyyah, to the degree that a lover always welcomes and enjoys everything, good or bad, that comes from the beloved and looks upon it as an opportunity to prove the genuineness of his love. It was perhaps the same idea that motivated Abu Ali Rudbari to say, “Sufism means kneeling down at the door of the beloved and waiting sincerely and submissively, even if it is certain that the beloved will eventually tell the lover to go away.” A servant with a heart brimming over with love embraces everything that comes from his Lord; an embracing whose intensity depends on the depth of his love for Him. Ibrahim’s -upon him peace- genuine and loving submission the Almighty transformed a raging fire into a rose garden, within a second. Yaqub’s -upon him peace- contentment and submission to Divine predestination made the excruciating pain of separation from his precious son Yusuf -upon him peace- sufferable, as he responded simply by saying, “So patience is most fitting.” (Yusuf, 18).

Sufis have made submission to the Almighty a central notion in their lives, as in the words of Rabia al-Adawiyya, “A lover unconditionally obeys his beloved.” This means that taslimiyyah is a matter of obeying with love. The Companions perfected their levels of their righteousness in and through their love, obedience and faith in the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, by virtue of which they duly became ideal figures to guide the following Muslim generations.

In light of the aforementioned definitions of Sufism, we may conclude by stating that the Sufi way demands that a believer make effort to put the essence of the religion to practice through purifying himself of material as well as immaterial contaminations and assuming good character traits in their place. This way, a believer reaches a comprehensive understanding of all physical and spiritual events that take place and gains an insight to secrets which can otherwise not be grasped by use of the rational faculty alone. Sufism is the struggle to overcome the ego and to let the heart shine its inherent potential to enjoy unlimited spiritual pleasures. From another vantage, the Sufi way is also a kind of scholarly discipline, elaborating on how the flesh chains the spirit into a prison and locks the gates, preventing it from comprehending the realities and wisdoms that underlie surrounding events. In providing the human spirit the key to unlock the gates of the flesh, the Sufi way leads the spirit out of that prison and allows it to explore the lessons and wisdoms embedded in all types of observable events, teaching it the correct way of appraising and re-evaluating them, from an insightful and spiritual panorama.

Ibrahim Effendi, the renowned Sheikh of the Sufi Lodge of Aksaray, eloquently voices the assorted definitions of the Sufi path in the following lines:

Being a Sufi, at the onset, is freedom from material existence,
At the end, it is to rise to throne of the heart

Being a Sufi, at the onset, is to strip away the flesh,
At the end, it is to enter the Lord’s palace of secrets.

Being a Sufi, is to remove the fading garment of the body,
In return for a pure existence, and the light of the Lord…

Being a Sufi, is to kindle the candle of the heart with a flame Divine,
And hence throwing it in the fire of love, to burn forever more…

Being a Sufi is save oneself from the grip of the ego,
And hence to follow the Law and attain to true faith.

Being a Sufi is acquaintance with the ways of the Lord;
And hence to reach out a helping hand and cure to the needy.

Being a Sufi is to unlock the flesh with the key of the Lord’s Name,
And to usher it in through the gates of nothingness.

Being a Sufi is to turn the Sufi words to action,
Where each word uttered becomes a portion of life.

Being a Sufi is to learn to interpret the dreams and the word,
To become a secret, in one’s own right, in the seat of life.

Being a Sufi is to become joyous and bewildered in Divine presence,
To be in amazement before the secrets of the Divine.

Being a Sufi is to cleanse the heart of everything other than the Lord,
To turn the heart into His Throne through faith

Being a Sufi is to reach East and West in the blink of an eye;
To hence care for all people and offer them shelter.

Being a Sufi is to witness the Lord’s presence in every particle,
To hence be a sun shining upon all creation.

Being a Sufi is to understand the languages of all creation;
To assume to role of Solomon in the realm of intellect.

Being a Sufi is to seize the firmest handle, to burden the greatest duty;
To hence reflect on the Quran and convey the news of Divine Mercy.

Being a Sufi is to treat all beings through the secret name of the Lord;
The ability to absorb the commands of the Quran.

Being a Sufi is to seek the Lord in every gaze thrown,
To hence turn difficulty into ease for the fellow human being.

Being a Sufi is to turn the heart into a depository of Divine knowledge
To lead a drop, the human being is, into the vast ocean.

Being a Sufi is to burn entire existence in the fire of negation;
And then to revive through the light of affirmation”.

Being a Sufi is to call to the path, to say “sufficient is the Lord” (ar-Rad, 43),
To nurture delight for the inevitable “return”.
(al-Ghashiyah, 28)

Being a Sufi is to return to life after dying a thousand times each day,
To act as a reviver for corpses from all creation.

Being a Sufi is to annihilate existence into the existence Divine,
To conceal oneself in the intimacy of being “even nearer”.
(an-Najm, 9)

Being a Sufi is to surrender the soul to the beloved and become free;
To remain with the beloved forever more.

Being a Sufi, Ibrahim, is to become a real servant of the Lord;
To embrace and remain loyal to the Law of Muhammad.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

The subject matter of Sufism is as vast and deep as an ocean; for it covers everything related to the human soul and spirit.

[1]        The term “warathatu’l-anbiya’” denotes the real scholars who, both inwardly and outwardly, personify prophetic conduct and above all, the morals of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, and exhibit an exemplary way of life in all respects, in both theory and practice; as the hadith in question reads, “…real scholars are heirs to prophets.” Abu Dawud, Ilm, 1.

[2]        Suyuti, Jamiu‘-Saghir, II, 73

[3]        R. Garaudy, Islam’in Vaad Ettikleri, 47.

[4]        According to the reports, when the battle began, the Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- prayed and threw a handful of dust at the enemy, which struck the eyes of the enemy and stupefied them. The verse was revealed right after this incident.

[5]        Qurtubi, al-Jami, IX, 107.

[6]        Elmalılı M. Hamdi Yazır, Hak Dini Kur’an Dili, IV, 2829-2830.