From the mystical to the political: What is Sufism?

From the mystical to the political: What is Sufism?
7 min read
10 Apr, 2018
Comment: The call to pluralism within Sufism is celebrated, and different interpretations encouraged, writes Eric Geoffroy.
Pilgrims come to Istanbul from all over the world to commemorate Rumi's death [Getty]
There are three dimensions to the religion of Islam: The law, theology and spirituality. Sufism is defined as that third one, the inward dimension of Islam. 

Sufis consider this dimension an aspect of the eternal and universal wisdom that has existed since Adam, and has been incarnated in the body of the Islamic religion, born in Arabia in the seventh century.

Uncertainty remains as to the etymology of the word, which appeared towards the end of the second century of the Hegira. "Sufi" is the stem from which the Arabic word tasawwuf is formed, which literally means "the adoption of the Sufi values and rites" and was translated into English by the word "Sufism".

In the Quran (57:3), God is presented as being both the Outward and the Inward, the Visible and the Hidden; and for the Sufis, creation is in the image of God.

And so, underneath the world of appearances, shapes, dogma and law, there exist an inward reality (haqiqa) which is its true foundation and gives it meaning. This reality is what the Sufi tends to perceive, starting from the outward and peripheral norm, the sharia, for a journey across the road of initiation (tariqa) which connects appearance to essence - the shell to the core. This introspective process is outlined in the Quran (51:20):

"On earth are Signs for those whose Faith is certain. And also in yourselves. Will you not then see?"

'Only Allah is'

Sufis have given several goals to their discipline. They all agree on the necessity of purifying the soul in order to become transparent to God and acquire the "noble virtues" of the Prophet.

For most Sufis, purification is a mere tool: You must know Allah in order to adore Him more. But this is impossible to achieve as long as the ego stands between Him and human consciousness: by "annihilating in Allah" (al-fanā') the initiate comes to the conclusion that only He is.

'Human beings were not created for you to see them but for you to see the Lord in them', Sufis say

Indeed, doesn't the Islamic profession of faith declare that "There is no God but Allah"? For the Sufis, this means that "Only Allah is", because what is created, what is contingent must disappear before what is Absolute.

The follower, immersed in the Presence, can see nothing but Allah, but when he comes back amongst men, he must "subsist" in Allah, meaning he must see Allah in all beings, in all manifestations, which is much more difficult…

Hence, Sufis do not reject the world. "Human beings were not created for you to see them but for you to see the Lord in them", Sufis say. The Quran repeatedly encourages human beings to decipher "signs" and get to know Allah by contemplating His manifestation.

A culture in contemporary Islam

Since the eighteenth century, the rise of Wahhabism has imposed a tough, Bedouin Islam, supported by petrodollars and the United States.

Different currents of the revivalist Salafism have passed on this literalist and ideological vision into the 20th century. Sufism, however has kept influencing all aspects of Islamic culture. This is why the great Muslim reformists of the end of the 19th century and of the 20th century (Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, Said Noursi…) have never renounced their roots in Sufism as a spiritual discipline. They merely criticised the sectarian shape it took when they thought it alienated Muslim peoples.

The first mystics' experiences display a broad range of spiritual temperaments

The scathing attacks launched against Sufism by Salafists and "modernists" seemed to have plunged it into disgrace, and up until the 1970s, a few Orientalists were still predicting its imminent decline.

But a renewal came about in the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s, following the failures of several ideologies which took over the Arab-Muslim world in the 20th century (nationalism, Marxism, Islamism…) and the disappointment felt by those following the western way of life.

Despite the critical phase Sufism went through, it held on to its roots in Islamic culture. In 1989, Syrian Sheikh Naqshbandi Said Hawwa, who was also the leader of one the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, was able to claim that across the centuries, 90 percent of Muslims had had a link with Sufism, one way or another.

There has also been a growing interest in Sufism in the West and it has gained in strength in Islam-dominated countries, where the situation is in fact rather contrasted.

Read more: The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

In many countries, young people have been joining Brotherhoods in large numbers, when only 20 years ago the average members' age was markedly older.

Although it may seem the case, Sufism actually has many devotees, and followers are estimated to number around 300 million out of a worldwide 1.6 billion Muslims, thus accounting for close to 19 percent of the Sunni branch of Islam.

This helps refute the incorrect idea that the Muslim community has been submerged by waves of Islamists, Muslim Brothers, Wahaabi-Salafis and so-called "jihadists". Though the sufis are talked about much less often in the media.

The 'divergence principle'

"The colour of water is the colour of its vessel": this is the allusive way the Great Sufi of Bagdad Abu'l Qasim al-Junayd, who died in 911, attempted to explain that there exist many different ways to reach Sufism.

One Sufi proverb indeed says that "
there are as many paths to God as there are children of Adam", and each will make his way according to his own dispositions. In the 10th century, Abu Nasr al-Sarraj explained this diversity with a phrase of the Prophet:

ifferences of opinions among savants [Muslims] are a source of divine mercy" to the "inward savants"; the Sufis. But if each Sufi can only speak in accordance with the spiritual level he has reached and depending on his experience of the instant, all can profit from the exchange.

Sufism contributes to an opening of Muslims' field of vision, by encouraging inter-religious exchanges and a mixing of cultures

This call to pluralism shares in the Islamic principle of "divergence"(khilaf), mainly observed in Islamic law. Far from desiring to suppress differences, the first authors of Sufi textbooks (10th and 11th centuries) emphasised them because they found in them a good illustration of the richness and subtlety of Sufis' experiences. Consequently, Sufis may not agree on the terminology of their doctrine or even on some theological points.

Different sensibilities have found expression in the blossoming Islamic spirituality, among which stand are the way of "renouncement" or "asceticism" (zuhd) in Syria and the way of the "blame" (malama) Iran/Central Asia, before Sufism (tasawwuf) from Iraq became dominant and swallowed up the other schools.

So, the first mystics' experiences (ninth and early 10th centuries ) display a broad range of spiritual temperaments, out of which was born a typology still relevant today: Abu Yazid al-Bistami and Mansur Al-Hallaj exemplify spiritual intoxication, Al-Junayd lucidity, Harith Al- Muhasibi the delight of fate, Hakim Al-Tirmidhi sanctity, etc.

But even within mature Sufism, which from then became the major expression of Sunni Islamic expression (11th and 12th centuries) and even within the framework of "particular roads of initiation" or
tariqa, the individual will maintain his autonomy, the fundamental freedom which Sufism promotes, thus validating 15th century Sheikh Ahmad Al-Zarraq's reflection that:

Read more: Misinterpreting Sharia

"Sufis will keep well as long as they disagree. They can only agree by turning an eye to their mutual defects and no one is without defects…"

At a time when humanity is faced with serious challenges, and when confessional withdrawal no longer has its place, will Islam follow the slow swaying motion from the political to the mystical as Andre Malraux foretold?

Far from being a passing fad, the current quest for spirituality corresponds to a basic need for many of us. In this respect, Sufism contributes to an opening of Muslims' field of vision, by encouraging inter-religious exchanges and a mixing of cultures.

Eric Geoffroy is a French philosopher, Islamologist, writer and scholar in Sufi studies, who teaches at the University of Strasbourg.

This is an edited translation originally published in French by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.