When kulfi vendors are spotted on
the streets of Rusholme at night, one can be sure that Ramadan is underway.
During this time of fasting, Muslims exercise self-control during daylight
hours – eating, drinking, smoking and sex must all wait until sunset. To
celebrate this holiest of months in the Islamic calendar, I present this
piece on the Muslim mystical tradition of Sufism.
One of the most famous quotes concerning the nature of Sufism belongs to an unknown Sufi Master who said: “There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take, for instance, a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with one’s own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God.”
All Muslims base their faith on two simple
statements, known as the shahadah:
There is no god but God
Muhammad is the Prophet of God
The meaning of these testimonies to a practicing Sufi is not what might initially be expected, however.
The first testimony, ‘There is no god but
God’ should not be misunderstood as a statement of narrow monotheistic
territorialism. In fact, this concept has much in common with the Hindu notion
of Brahman, which is to say, it can be seen as a pantheistic statement – all
that exists is an expression of God (or Allah, in Arabic).
To the Sufi, this statement expresses the concept of Unity of Being; that which annihilates all multiplicity. Viewed from the perspective of this statement God is both immanent and transcendent, and all things are part of God. Indeed, from the viewpoint of Sufi metaphysics, the universe in every instant returns to and is renewed by God – it is as if the existence of time and space is merely the expression of the divine nature of God.
Through the Unity of Being, the Sufi seeks
to eliminate all notions of duality (a process with much in common with certain
schools of Buddhism, such as Ch’an or Zen Buddhism) – there can be no self,
because all is God. From this perspective, the very goal of Sufism is to gather
all multiplicity into unity. Thus the ultimate meaning of the first testimony
to a Sufi is the realisation that all is reflected in the mirror of one’s own
being; that nothing can be separated from God since everything is God.
This idea is also expressed in the Sufi attitude towards other religions. Every spiritual path is considered to emphasise a particularly aspect of the Truth. For example, Christianity emphasises love, Taoism emphasises unity, while to the Sioux importance is placed upon self-renunciation. Islam itself is considered to emphasise knowledge. Hidayat Inayat-Khan of the International Sufi Movement wrote of the Sufi attitude to other religions: “Sufism is an attitude of inner sympathy towards all beliefs. All religions are Sufi religions as long as they recognize the limits inherent in any speculative interpretation of Truth.” It is in this manner that I identify myself as a Sufi.
The second testimony, ‘Muhammad is the Prophet of God’, expresses what is known as the Universal Prototype. In essence, Muhammad is an individual who in form manifests all the possibilities of humanity – he combines the expression of the Divine (through revelation) with human nature (by marrying and having children). Ibn ’Arabi says: “The Universal Prototype stands in the same relation to God as the pupil which is the instrument of vision to the eye. Through the Universal Prototype, God becomes conscious of Self in all the Divine Aspects. The Universal Prototype is the eye of the world, whereby the Absolute sees its own works.”
Another way of looking at this is that
before the existence of humanity, the universe was unpolished, unreflective,
and unconscious of the Divine. By its very sentience, mankind serves to polish
the mirror of the universe - the Sufi mystic thus aspires to become the
instrument by which the Divine can have a vision of Self in another form. Once
the mystic becomes empty of Self he or she becomes capable of reflecting the
Divine to the Divine. (The parallel with the mystic traditions of Buddhism
which equally seek to banish the self is quite striking).
Conceptually, the process by which one becomes Sufi is
the mystic quest, which can be compared to a personal expression of the Heroic
Monomyth, a pattern identified across all mythologies by the scholar Joseph
Campbell. It begins by awakening to awareness that the phenomenal world
conceals the essence of the Divine, followed by the call – which for this path is
contained in the shahadah. The mystic is initiated, and finds a guide (for
although a few become Sufi independently, most Sufi study under a master thus
continuing a chain of transmission which is said to go back to the Prophet
Once initiated, the mystic passes through a gateway away from the everyday world of the phenomenal, placing them in a realm of symbols – and it is here that they may place their psyche in danger. The perils on this path are traditionally represented by demons (jinn) and dragons. By entering a world of symbols, one becomes open to transformation – but one must be certain that the cause of this transformation is God. Ultimately, the “Arc of Ascent” becomes concluded, and the “Arc of Descent” begins, through which the mystic returns to the everyday phenomenal world. All that changes is the mystic, who is now Sufi.
(To anyone unfamiliar with mysticism, this description may sound like absolute nonsense – while to anyone familiar with mystic traditions, the pattern will likely seem quite natural. In psychological terms, all mystical experience can perhaps be considered a form of deconstructionism).
In terms of the open practice of Sufism,
there are many forms of invocation (dhikr or zikr) that are more tangible than
this rather abstract “mystic quest”. The most famous expression of this is
perhaps the dances of the Mevlevi, or “whirling dervishes” who express the “Arc
of Ascent” – drawing closer to the perfection of God – through an ecstatic,
dizzying dance. There are many forms of invocation involving drums, singing and
dancing, and each Sufi order has its own rituals for expressing dhikr, many of
which are lively and magnificent expressions of spirituality. This is balanced
by more introspective forms of invocation, such as those involving chanting,
incense, meditation or trances.
The spread of Islam by Sufis has been
entirely peaceful, and took the teachings of Muhammad to many regions such as
Neither is Sufism in decline. Although
formal statistics are not available, estimates reported by the BBC place the
number of practicing Sufi in
In a modern world increasingly seeking ways to move beyond the prejudices and hostilities of history, Sufi beliefs represent one way Muslims can position their faith as part of a wider spiritual perspective. Even to a non-Muslim, Sufi philosophy presents a gateway to a more tolerant practice of religion, and a possible liberation from the shackles of dogma. The Sufi seeks illumination, finding God and losing self in the process. For a religion that is more than a millennium old, it remains as relevant today as at any point in its long and distinguished history.