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Islamic Society ( 11 Nov 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Understanding Sufism, the Ladder of Gnostics

By Mushtaque B Barq

November 04, 2016


Sufism is the integral part of Islam. All the challenges and voices of contemporary and rational philosophy can be well responded in the light of Sufism. It is the science of knowing the very essence of religion and preaches love, universal brotherhood, compassion, fellow feeling and above all religious tolerance. Sufism promises peace both within and outside for it brings at fore humility, charity and selfless service of people on one hand and at the other it leads a devotee to learn how to tackle with egoism, lust, carnal desires and Satan. It is the way to ‘know’ what otherwise is latent and unknown. It is a platform that invites both exoterists and esoterists to a common path of wisdom through love and understanding.  Sufism leads a devotee to peep into the realities by Dhikr. It also ensures a devotee to realize the treasure of cosmos within his frame; it opens the doors and windows of heart otherwise bolted by rational faculties.

Sufism is embedded in the texture of Islamic creed, representing an ideal mode of worship derived from the Quranic Revelation and from the customs and Sunna and Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad SAW, and then transmitted without interruption throughout the centuries1.  Sufism has given abundant proofs of its authenticity. Many Muslims are suspicious of Sufism for the sole reason that the term Sufi and Tasawwuf are not found in the Holy Qur’an and may not have existed during the holy life time of the Prophet SAW. In their eyes, it is question of a “blameworthy innovation”. Ibn Khaldun, who himself was not a Sufi, replied that at the time of the Prophet SAW it was not necessary to give a particular name to Islam’s interior path. The new religion was then being lived in its fullness, the exoteric along with the esoteric, because the Companions of Muhammad SAW were witnessing the model of “realized” man in the Prophet SAW. This spiritual companionship (Suhba) was able to concentrate within itself all of the spiritual benefit that the Prophet’s entourage drew from him. In this proximity to the luminous prophetic source, terminology and doctrine didn’t have a place2.

Sufism since its beginning has been called the “Knowledge of hearts” or the “knowledge of spiritual states” as opposite to the formal disciplines such as the law. Being the “knowledge of inner” (Ilm al- Batin), as opposite to exoteric knowledge (Ilm az- Zahir), it proposes an alternative and paradoxical explanation of the world, which most often is incomprehensible to exoterists. Sufism distinguishes itself by its supra-rational --- not irrational --- character, whereas theology and law rely on discursive reason and dialectical thought. Sufis do not reject the other disciplines of Islam, but they use them as a springboard, explaining that the word aql, which means “reason” or mind, also means “shackle.” Because the spiritual world does not obey the laws of duality, it is indeed by the union of opposites that the Sufi realizes the divine Unicity 3.

 From the very beginning of the Revelation, when Prophet Muhammad’s SAW , Companions sat with him during night-watching filled with the recitation of the holy verses and the invocation of the divine Names, till date when devotes affiliated with Sufism aspire to the purification of their souls by following the way of Sufism under the guidance of spiritual masters.  Sufism is esoteric aspect of Islam; it is to be distinguished from exoteric Islam4. Exoterism stands on the level of formal intelligence which is conditioned by its objects, which are partial and mutually exclusive truths. As for esoterism, it alone moves freely in its limitless space and sees how relative truths are delimited5.  Exoterism by definition must be limited in some sense, for it addresses itself to a particular humanity and a particular psychological and mental conditions __ even though its means of addressing itself is to some degree universalized and expanded through time and space to encompass a large segment of the human race. Esotericism also addresses itself to particular psychological types, but it is open inwardly towards the Infinite in a much more direct manner than exotericism, since it is concerned primarily with overcoming all the limitations of the individual order. The very forms which somehow limit exotericism become for esotericism the point of departure towards the unlimited horizons of the spiritual world. Or again, exotericism concerns itself with forms of a sacred nature and has for its goal the salvation of the individual by means of these very forms, whereas esotericism is concerned with the spirit that dwells within sacred forms and has as its goal the transcending of all individual limits6.  Ibn ‘Arabi points out that, traditions have their exoteric and esoteric sides in order that all believers may worship to their capacities.

The prophets spoke in the language of outward things and of the generality of men, for they had confidence in the understanding of him who had knowledge and the ears to hear. They took into account only the common people, because they knew the station of the People of Understanding…..They made allowances for those of weak intelligence and reasoning powerful, those who were dominated by passion and spiritual deposition7.

The orthodoxy of Sufism is not only shown in its maintaining of Islamic forms, it is equally expressed in its original development from the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad SAW , and in particular by its ability to assimilate all forms of spiritual expression which are  not in their essence foreign to Islam. This applies, not only to doctrinal forms, but also to supplementary matters8. In the preface to the fifth book of the Mathnawi Rumi summarizes the relationship between the exoteric law ( the Sharia), the spiritual  which the Sufi undergoes ( the Tariqa), and the Truth which is Sufism’s goal ( the Haqîqa). He says:

…..the Religious Law is like a candle showing the way. Unless you gain possession of the candle, there is no wayfaring and when you have come on to the way, your wayfaring is the Path and when you have reached the journey’s end, that is the Truth……

Sufism is the name given to the mystical movement within Islam, a Sufi is a Muslim who dedicates himself to the quest after mystical union (or, better said, reunion) with his Creator. The Qur’an, the Book of Allah’s revelation to Prophet Muhammad SAW, contains numerous passages of a mystic character which the Sufis seized upon eagerly to support their own claim to personal trafficking with God 9.

And when My servants question thee

Concerning Me--- I am near to answer

The call of the caller, when he calls

To Me; so let them respond to Me,

And let them believe in Me; haply so they will go aright    (Qur’an, 2: 182)

We indeed created man; and We know

What his soul whispers within him,

And We are nearer to him than the jugular vein (Qur’an, 50:51)

Making the inner constitution of Sufism easy to understand, it should be kept in mind that it always includes indispensable elements, first, a doctrine, secondly, an initiation and, thirdly, a spiritual method. The doctrine is a symbolic prefiguring of the knowledge to be attained; it is also, in its manifestation, a fruit of that knowledge.  As for initiation in Sufism, this consists in the transmission of a spiritual influence and must be conferred by a representative of a ‘chain’ reaching back to the Prophet SAW. The general framework of the method is the Islamic Law. Initiation takes place as a form of pact (Bay’at) between spiritual master and disciple10.

A Sufi like other believer must pray and in general, conform to the revealed Law since his individual human nature will always remain passive in relation to Divine Reality or Truth. “The servant (individual) always remains the servant” (al-Abd yabqa-l-ab11) Islam is primarily a “way of knowledge” which means that its spiritual methods, its way of bridging the illusory gap between man and God’__ “illusory,” but none the less as real as man’s own ego__ is centred upon man’s intelligence. Man is convinced of as a “theomorphic” being, a being created in the image of God and therefore as possessing the three basic qualities of intelligence, freewill and speech. Intelligence is central to the human state and gains a saving quality through its content, which is Islam, is the Shahada or “profession of faith”: La Ilaha Illa Allah, “There is no god but God”, through the Shahada man comes to know the Absolute and the nature of reality, and thus also the way of salvation. The element of will must be taken into account, as it exists and only through it can man choose to conform to the Will of the Absolute. Speech or communication with God, becomes the means__ through prayers in general or in Sufism through quintessential prayers or invocation (Dhikr)__ of actualizing man’s awareness of the Absolute and of leading intelligence and will back to their essence. The immediate, practical motivation for Dhikr is that man finds himself entrapped in manifestation. The doctrine of Dhikr is that the Divine Name (Allah) directly vehicles the Principle, and when the believer unites himself with the Divine Name in fervent invocation, he inwardly frees himself from manifestation and its concomitant suffering.

The essential condition for Dhikr is faqr, i.e. “spiritual poverty” or self- effacement. Without faqr, Dhikr is self-delusion and pride and a dangerous poison for the soul. Dhikr, in the wider sense, includes any devotion that serves as a support for the remembrance of God, in particular the Wird or rosary, which most Fuqara recite morning and evening. The Wird comprises three Quranic formulas, each of which is recited one hundred times. The first formula pertains to individual man and its aim is to establish contrition and resolution. The second contains the name of the Prophet SAW and seeks to confer on the Faqir the perfection pertaining to the human state as it was created. The third formula contains the Name of God, and enshrines and vehicles the mystery of Union. The three formulas thus correspond to the three “stages” known in the mysticism of various religions, namely: purification, perfection and union. And in their essence, they correspond to the three fundamental aspects of all spirituality: humility, charity and truth 12.

 According to Sufi teachings, the path of spiritual realization can only be undertaken and transverse under the guidance of a spiritual master, someone who has already transverse the stages of the path to God, and who has, moreover, been chosen by Heaven to lead others on the way. During life time Prophet SAW initiated many of his Companions into spiritual life by transferring to them the “Muhammadan grace” (al- Barakat al- Muhammadiyya) and giving them theoretical and practical instructions. Some of these Companions were in their own turn given the function of initiating others13.  Under a master’s direction, the aspirant follows an interior journey that must lead him to climb the ladder of the universal hierarchy of Being. The initiatic path proceeds from the holy Qur’an, which defines itself as “guidance” (Huda).

As the Sufi progresses on the Way, he ascends a double ladder, one of “initiatic stations” (Maqam) and one of “spiritual states” (Hal). The former, the fruit of spiritual discipline (Mujahadah), remain secure for the one who has attained them, the latter are divine favours which are granted to the mystic without his having caused them and which therefore assume a fluctuating and elusive character14. Fundamentally, the Sufi wants to react against the spiritual degeneration that has affected humanity and to him as well. While following the initiatic Path, he recovers the state of “union” that was his in the spiritual world, and at every moment he renews the Pact (Mithaq) sealed between God and men before the incarnation on earth. A Sufi attempts to regain his initial purity while fighting against bodily and worldly attachments. The Holy Qur’an and Prophet SAW frequently put the believer on guard against the snares that his carnal soul (nafs) sets for him. Echoing the Prophet’s words, “Man’s fiercest enemy is the carnal soul that lies hidden within him,” one of the earliest masters defined Sufism as a discipline “leaving no part for the ego.”

Such are the foundations of the “greater holy war” (al- jihad al- Akbar), extolled by the holy Prophet SAW and the different forms of the struggle against the passions of the soul to which Sufis have dedicated themselves throughout the centuries 15.  The Sufi conquering his Nafs (specifically here the ‘Nafs al-Ammarah bi l su’, or the “soul that commands to evil”) is often portrayed as man dominating and subjugating the “feminine” within himself, usually understood to mean his spiritual weakness, or his weakness for women and attachments in this world (and the world, in this negative sense, is referred to in Arabic as Dunya, also grammatically feminine). For a proper marital life, in traditional Islamic terms, the husband must rule over his wife (“Men are in charge of women”) and the woman must submit to her husband’s rational demands. When the roles are reversed, according to traditional interpretations, chaos ensues.

Similarly, the Sufi made it clear that a proper spiritual life requires that the spirit or intellect (Aql or Ruh----grammatically masculine terms) rule over the passion of the Nafs or soul. At the same time, the hidden and the eternally unmanifest Essence of God, the God Beyond- Being, the Dhat, is also symbolically feminine.  If the Nafs may kindle man’s baser desires, the Dhat, or Essence, standing at the opposite end of the Sufi’s mystic path, is on the contrary the source of his greatest and most ennobling desire 16.

Sufis believe that the goal of a Sufi is to arrive at the knowledge of God in order to better adore Him. “They have not appreciated God equal to His true measure” (Qur’an 6:91). According to al-Qushayri, the verse means “They did not know God in His true measure.” The doctrinal seeds of “knowledge,” of gnosis (Ma’rifa), are present in the first masters, and it may be that it is necessary to see in this the beginning of a Neoplatonic influence which would later provide Sufism with conceptual tools.  Al- Bistami affirms that the “knower,” the Gnostic, “flies towards God, while the ascetic only walks”. Ruwaym says that “hypocrisy of Gnostics is better than the sincerity of aspirant17 [who aspire only to purification]. He further writes that Knowledge is a mirror, in which the Gnostic sees God revealing Himself. The Sufi thus sees God in all being, in every manifested thing. Unlike the ascetic, he does not reject the world, because to him it is illuminated by the divine Presence.  “Beings were not created so that you would see them, but so that you would see their Master in them,” said Ibn ‘Ata’Allah. A Sufi doesn’t live in a state of union, because in Islam there is no continuity of substance between God and creation. His goal is “Extinction in God” (Fana). Being completely unaware of himself as subject- consciousness, he becomes mirror in which God contemplates Himself.

The experience of extinction in God (Fana), which is the essential model of the mystical life in Islam into contemplation (Mushahada), was validated by exoteric scholars, who saw in it the interior realization of the fundamental dogma of the divine Unicity. In the first phase, the one of Fana, a person doesn’t see anything outside of God, in the second, the one of baqa, he sees Him in everything.


         Jean-Louis Michon , Sufism Love and Wisdom (Introduction) xxi

         Approaching Sufism, Eric Geoffroy, Sufism Love and Wisdom p 49

         Ibid, p 50

         Titus Burckhardt, Sufism Love and Wisdom p 1

         Titus Burckhardt, Sufi Doctrine and Methods , p11

         William C. Chittick, Sufism and Islam, Sufism Love and Wisdom, p 25.

         Willaim C. Chittick, Sufism and Islam, Sufism Love and Wisdom, pp 26-27)

         Titus Burckhardt, Sufi Doctrine and Methods , p 4

         Muslim Saints and Mystics translated by Arthur J. Arberry ( Introduction)

         Titus Burckhardt, Sufi Doctrine and Methods , p5

          Titus Burckhardt, Sufi Doctrine and Methods , p 8

         William Stoddart, “Aspect of Islamic Esoterism”, Sufism Love and Wisdom, p245-246.

         Willaim C. Chittick, Sufism and Islam, Sufism Love and Wisdom, p 28.

         Approaching Sufism, Eric Geoffroy, Sufism Love and Wisdom p 54

         Ibid, page 56

         Maria Massi Dakake, “Walking upon the Path of God like Men”?, Sufism Love and Wisdom, p133-134

         Al-Qushayri, Risala, page 315-316