FAQing Hell!


Bismillah 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 Muhammad himself). 

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).

Dervish 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 sub-Saharan Africa, Indonesia, the Indian province of Bengal and neighbouring Bangladesh. The Islamic cultures formed in this way have tended towards syncretism and tolerance, reflecting the Sufi belief that each religion reflects a different aspect of God (or Truth). Of course, Sufism is not the only peaceful expression of Islam, and the vast majority of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims reflect Muhammad’s teaching that violence is only acceptable in self-defence or in direct opposition of oppression.

Neither is Sufism in decline. Although formal statistics are not available, estimates reported by the BBC place the number of practicing Sufi in Iran at between two and five million (compared to around 100,000 prior to the revolution of 1979). The International Association of Sufism estimates some 20% of the world’s Muslims hold Sufi beliefs, which would mean the number of Sufi in the modern world matches the population of the United States. 

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.


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Is the universal prototype created using agile methodologies?

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