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What is Sufism?

Dr. Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali
(Chair and President of the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA)
February 2014

Much has been written about Sufism. Unfortunately, enough to provide a state of confusion, which is difficult to explain for those who have had closer encounters with its real teaching and practices. This short statement is an attempt to dissipate some of the misunderstandings and hopefully present a degree of clarity, as well as some of the vocabulary commonly used. As in all simplified introductions, the content of this paper is not a full description of Sufism. The vocabulary introduced here is an integral part of the Persian spoken and written language and not exclusive to Sufism.

Concepts of Sufism

The word “Sufism” is used in Western languages in reference to erfân (cognition), also pronounced irfân. The Persian term is derived from the Arabic root ARF, borrowed into the Persian language and also the root of ma’refat, collectively meaning “cognition, knowledge with full understanding, awareness and enlightenment.” This latter expression refers to the end result and objective of the seeker (sâlek) while going through tariq (the spiritual path). The spiritual path itself could be described as a training discipline for individuals, via direct initiation and practice to purify towards reaching full potential and enlightenment.

As suggested by the word “initiation” (practicum and hands-on training,) Sufi teaching does not take place using textbooks or other memorized knowledge. Rather it is achieved through personal experience along the spiritual path, equipped with talab (yearning with perseverance, longing) via zekr (recital) and tamarkoz (focused meditation and concentration). The initiation to erfân is mainly individual, with sâlek engaging in seyr-o soluk (literally: revolve and seek, refering to contemplative and transformative stages). The seeker is guided on the spiritual path tariq, however, by a Master (pir, literally: old, symbolic for wisdom, used as an anonymous title for a spiritual teacher, guide or Master) of the time. Those Masters who have gone through the experience themselves, guided by other teachers, pass down essential knowledge or truth to the seeker in an unbroken chain, generation after generation, forming a lineage through history.

Sufi Initiation and the Spiritual Path

The teaching method, then, is “initiation” (amali), literally “via actions,” referring to a practicum with hands-on training, empowering seekers through direct practice. The teaching material for this is based on the fundamental principles of Sufism, formed through centuries of human experience, in order to achieve ma’refat (enlightenment): “the cognition of pure knowledge.” Contemplation and transformation starts with the discovery of true self and ends with its annihilation (fanâ) in all-encompassing, omniscient, absolute knowledge and pure attributes, or “union with God” (towhid, oneness). Absolute knowledge is understood as cognition of the universal phenomenon, which includes the common language and truth concerning the essence of the “pure existence within,” namely hasti (the existence), al hay (the pure ever-living existence), al haq (the truth or reality of the existence), allâh (God): Holy Qur’an 2-255: allâh-o la elâha ellâ hu al hay ol qayum (Allah is non but “hu” [He] the all-powerful ever-living existence).

Sufi teaching is based on the underlying precepts and commonality of all religions and spiritual paths in human history. Its official teaching started under Islam in the seventh century, 1400 years ago, but its fundamental principles are shared among the world’s religions throughout the ages and prior to Islam. The sharing of those principles and inclusiveness of high human values, the meaning of the “pure existence within” and the divine attributes in Sufism, are reasons for it to be called “the reality of religions” by its adherents. Thus, the teachings of all Prophets, including Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammad, are recognized, respected and followed in the fundamental principles of Sufism.

One of the first steps on the spiritual path towards enlightenment is the cognition of the self “I,” for the Prophet of Islam declared: “man arafa nafsohu faqad arafa rabbohu (whoever cognizes the true self has cognized God.”) The true self “I,” without the ailments caused by acquired layers of self-centeredness, is divine and the seeker’s cognition of “the pure existence within” can be reached through full submission, with genuine hozur-e qalb (presence of heart, inner original knowledge.) The Prophet of Islam declared: “aleyka be qalbeka (you are what your heart is.”) “Presence of heart,” then, refers to full focus and concentration in that inner knowledge to reach a higher state of awareness, in order to reach towhid (oneness) and the state of “no separation between human and divine” as described in the meaning of lâ elâha‘ellallâh (there is no other but God.) The stage of fanâ (annihilation) of all hindering human attributes and the submission into luminescence of divine attributes should lead to towhid, “oneness” with God, “like a water drop becomes part of the sea.”

In order to reach enlightenment, the Sufi path is long and arduous. The seeker is to be steadfast in stepping away from worldly values, and persevere in dissipating self-centered and egoistic attributes in order to fuse in peace and harmony within pure cognition of divine qualities. The challenging task of the seeker is continuous practice in a world in motion that includes others affected with strong selfish attitudes and negative ailments. The task is for the seeker not to engage in “action/reactions” and to be aware of the misleading senses; to recognize one’s own and other’s limitations; and to labor altruistically in service to others while correcting personal self-centeredness, which is the root of most ailments such as jealousy, greed, anger, arrogance, self-righteousness and alike. The seeker perseveres in genuine yearning towards self-knowledge, self-correction and the discovery of one’s own potentials to better serve the community and ultimately humanity. The Sufi is thus on the path of becoming in harmony with the purity of divine attributes, which among others are: Selfless Love and Devotion, Generosity and Compassion, Tolerance and Forgiveness, and Service to others.

Stages on the Spiritual Path

As mentioned above, the Sufi path is long and arduous. The goal and objective (hadaf) is not only to achieve enlightenment (cognition of pure knowledge), but also to practice what is preached. The practice is to step away from material worldly values, to peel away all selfish and ego-centrist attributes, and to fuse in peace and harmony within cognition of pure heavenly qualities referred to as “divine attributes.” The practice requires the seeker to go through the following, mostly known vâdi (stages, intertwined pathways). Referred to only by name here, each could be subject to volumes of explanation:

  • vâdi-ye talab (the stage of yearning, longing) and strong wish to attain inner peace. talab (yearning with perseverance, longing) is fundamental in order to endure the discipline necessary for meditation, concentration and practice.

  • vâdi-ye eshq (the stage of love) and devotion, longing to reach cognition and towhid, union with the divine.

  • vâdi-ye esteqnâ (the stage of inner satisfaction with modesty), independent and detached from material values, the state of reliance and trust in heavenly attributes.

  • vâdi-ye tajrid (the stage of complete detachment from the material world), detached from worldly existence and expectation of compensations, and submerged into devotion to higher standards of spirituality.

  • vâdi-ye faqr (devoid of all possessions), the state of modesty, contentment and acceptance.

  • vâdi-ye fanâ (annihilation) of all egocentricity in favor of divine union.

  • vâdi-ye towhid (oneness), Union with the Divine Attributes.

Mysticism in Sufism

In Sufism, when reference is made to God or haq (truth,) another name for God in Islam, the Sufi refers to the “Divine Attributes,” which equals Truth or God. These and other descriptions of Sufi concepts related to towhid (the doctrine of oneness,) hasti (pure existence within), meditation, and other practices and concepts are kept ambiguous throughout history in most of the literature. They are held as if wrapped in layers of veils to be dissipated layer after layer and discovered only through personal experience of meditation and discovery by those who genuinely engage in the practice, and not only the curious.

The treatment of Sufi Masters by the ruling Muslim powers of the times could also explain the necessity of that level of secrecy. For example, the famous Persian Sufi Master, Mansur Hallaj (859-922) was put to death by the orthodox Muslims, accused of blasphemy for having said, “ana al haq (I am Truth; or God is within me.”)

This protective layer of secrecy and the initiation practices related to individual training and learning in a multitude of sometimes contradictory ways could possibly be the reason Western scholars refer to Sufism as “the mystical discipline in Islam.” The word “mystic” is from the Greek mystikos (seeing with one’s eyes closed) or “seeing with inside eyes,” in reference to communication through inward perception.

Today, a more accurate way of referring to how Sufism sees itself would be “the Essence of all Religions.” Based on the shared values and fundamental principles brought by all Prophets and religions, Sufism trains and guides individuals on the path of “self-discovery,” “self-correction” and “self-realization.” While reaching for the absolute knowledge from within, through meditation and concentration on divine attributes, the seeker trains to become of service with humility, devotion and compassion. This aspect of the Sufi training has caused them to be called “social and community oriented.” Although that is true, it is only one aspect of their initiation (hands-on training) and of their longing towards enlightenment, cognition from within, and reaching to towhid (union with the divine): Holy Qur’an 50-16: “I am closer to you than your jugular vein.”

Make no mistake, the path is hard enough that many are misled by the stronger influence of their senses and appetites. Unable to achieve the final tasks of purification, they only become the best orators, but fail in practice. The true seeker remains in practice forever, and sets examples through actions, not words.