<%-- Page Title--%> Religion <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 152 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 30, 2004

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What is SUFISM
Tazin Abdullah

My 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 Maulana Rumi!

This movement, commonly described as the "mystical dimension of Islam" or the "Path to Allah", seems to have created tremendous admiration in an otherwise hostile Western world.

What, 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 .

Seekers 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.

When 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 ."

"The 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.

Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies at the American University of Cairo, Dr. Joseph Lumbard says, "Sufism is not really some kind of esoteric secret thing.

Sufism is simply the sciences and methodologies for the purification of the heart which have arisen within the context of Islam."

From 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 .

One 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.

Being '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.

Dr. Lumbard says, "People can claim anything, but there is no justification in claiming to be a Sufi without being a Muslim."

Many 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.

That, 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."

In a 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 ."

There 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."

Some 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."

Rumi, 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."

"The 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.

Alamgir agrees, "To understand Sufism, one must remember the hadith about Ihsan."

The Prophet, when questioned by the Archangel Gabriel, about Ihsan, replied:

"It is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.”

Shahih Al-Bukhari Hadith, 1.47 (narrated by Abu Huraira)





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