early introduction to 'Sufism' was through a magazine that
called the movement, "The Human Face of Islam".
Intrigued by this rather peculiar statement, I searched
for more on the topic. To my surprise, I discovered that
a 795-year Persian Sufi, Maulana Jalal-al-Din Rumi, is now
counted amongst the best-selling poets in the United States.
A bigger surprise, however, was yet to come. It turned out
that Madonna and Deepak Chopra feature prominently on the
list of international celebrities who read and openly celebrate
movement, commonly described as the "mystical dimension
of Islam" or the "Path to Allah", seems to
have created tremendous admiration in an otherwise hostile
then, is this phenomenon known as Sufism?
The term 'Sufism' (tasawwuf, in Arabic) developed
in the fifteenth century and is derived from the Arabic
word suf, meaning wool. The word was initially used to speak
of Muslim ascetics who wore clothes made of the coarse wool
to signify their detachment from the material world. It
is also suggested that the term originates from the safa
(purity) or from the suffah, the 'People of the
Bench' who were engaged in discourses during the time of
the Prophet Muhammad .
on the Sufi path endeavour to bring themselves closer to
God by purifying their hearts and improving their inner
selves. The aim of Sufism is to take worship beyond mere
mechanical observance of the Islamic Shari'ah. It searches
for the spiritual meanings behind the Law and the inner
meaning of life itself.
the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) returned to Medina from the victories
of Mecca and Hunayn, he said, "We have returned from
the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad." His companions
asked, "What is the Greater Jihad, O Messenger of God?"
He answered, "The war against the soul ."
soul of fallen man is divided against itself," writes
Martin Lings . The lower soul, given to worldly desires
constantly battles against its better part, the conscience.
The Greater Jihad is the battle between the higher self
and the lower self and it is what Sufism focuses on.
Professor of Arabic Studies at the American University of
Cairo, Dr. Joseph Lumbard says, "Sufism is not really
some kind of esoteric secret thing.
is simply the sciences and methodologies for the purification
of the heart which have arisen within the context of Islam."
the earliest history of Islam, Sufism gradually developed
to take on an organisational form. Pious individuals formed
groups or 'brotherhoods' known as turuq (plural
of tariqah, which means 'path') . Each tariqah
would be headed by a Sheikh or a spiritual guide and consist
of devotees who saw the Sheikh as a true teacher on the
path to God. In the course of time, different turuq
developed, each having its own teachings and instructions
for purifying the heart .
is compelled to ask, then, what is it that Madonna finds
so appealing in Sufism? In a CD recording with Deepak Chopra,
she reads out English translations of Maulana Rumi's poetry.
In Madonna's readings, Rumi is immersed in a peculiarly
New Age flavour. His poetry speaks of drunkenness, intoxication
and irate love. While that may seem to explain Madonna's
association with Rumi, Dr. Joseph Lumbard calls these New
Age trends "cacophonous distortions" of Sufism.
'drunk' or 'intoxicated' with love in Rumi's poetry are
metaphorical allusions to the spiritual ecstasy in being
close to God. The 'beloved' that Rumi speaks of is God.
The 'marriage' that Rumi is obsessed with is the ultimate
Union with God.
Lumbard says, "People can claim anything, but there
is no justification in claiming to be a Sufi without being
Muslims, however, allege that the Sufi allusion to Unity
with God is un-Islamic. As Islam is based on the idea of
a transcendental God, Sufism is accused of attempting to
undermine the gap between being man and God.
M. Alamgir, Bengali translator of the Kitab Al-Hikam, argues
is a serious misconstruction of the aim of Sufism. He explains:
“The man who says, ‘I am the servant of God’, asserts that
two exist--one himself and the other God. To say, ‘I am
God’, on the other hand, means a total annihilation of the
self and the realisation of only one Reality--Allah."
Hadith Qudsi, Allah describes His true servant, "I
am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which
he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with
which he walks ."
are, however, the activities of some people claiming to
be Sufis that Alamgir recommends to be wary of. "Anytime
you see someone bypassing or attempting to bypass Shari'an
in the name of Sufism, you know something is amiss."
Sufis in modern times have claimed that they no longer need
to pray or fast, having experienced spiritual ecstasy. Dr.
Lumbard counters this claim, saying, "There is never
a point one will reach in this world when they are beyond
the practices of the religion. Basically, God tells us,
through different revelations and different religions, how
to behave in the formal realm to attain purification. This
is the consequence of having a body and being on a brief
sojourn through the realm of formal existents."
whose spiritual teachings have Muslim and non-Muslim followers
around the world, was a traditional Islamic jurist who later
became a Sufi. According to Dr. Lumbard, "Rumi does
indeed illuminate the shortcomings of those who see the
Law as the beginning and end of religion. But his call is
not to leave the practices of the law, it is to practice
all of one's religion with a pure heart, with true sincerity
and with love."
reality of Sufism, which is the purification of the heart,
in any other name, has always existed. If there were no
Sufism, there would be no Islam. Sometimes I like to call
Sufism the 'Ihsani tradition', so as to avoid all the well
rehearsed objections of the modern era," says Dr. Lumbard.
agrees, "To understand Sufism, one must remember the
hadith about Ihsan."
Prophet, when questioned by the Archangel Gabriel, about
is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him
not, He nevertheless sees you.”
Al-Bukhari Hadith, 1.47 (narrated by Abu Huraira)