Muslim Movements and SchismsA. SUFISM IN THEORY AND PRACTICE.
Islam at the beginning was primarily a legalistic religion and placed before its adherents little more than a code of ethics combined with a set of rituals. The faithful observance of these was deemed sufficient to satisfy every man's religious quest and ensure him a place in heaven. There was no demand for spiritual regeneration through a rebirth experience and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as in the Christian faith, nor for a highly spiritual form of devotion through which the worshipper could draw near to God in a personal way and discover the knowledge of his grace and favour.
During the Ummayad period, after Islam had made direct contact with Eastern Christianity and other oriental religions, a deeply mystical movement arose within its realm, in many ways, perhaps, indebted to the influence of these faiths for its motivation and principles, but nonetheless an independent theosophy developing purely within the framework of the Islamic society and heritage. The movement is known as Sufism (tasawwuf) and its followers are known as Sufis (pronounced "Soofies"). The word sufi almost certainly comes from the Arabic suf, meaning "wool", and implies that the Sufi is a wearer of a woollen garment. In pre-Islamic times ascetics often dressed in wool as a symbol of their particular course of life and the early Muslims who practiced austerity were duly nicknamed "Sufis". Later on the name was adopted by those who sought to obtain knowledge of God through various stages of spiritual self-denial as asceticism in Islam gave way to mysticism.
Sufism is principally a quest for a living knowledge of the Supreme Being. To the orthodox Muslim Allah ia the Lord of the Worlds, unique in his essence and attributes, ruling over all the universe and quite unlike anything in his creation. To the Sufi, on the other hand, "God is the One Real Being which underlies all phenomena" (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.80). He is everything and there is nothing but Him. Man's purpose is to lose his natural sense of a separate identity from his Creator and to be absorbed instead into his knowledge until there remains no distinction of consciousness between him and God. Through a series of stages (maqamat) and subjective experiences (ahwal) this process of absorption develops until complete annihilation (fana) takes place and the worshipper becomes al-insanul-kamil, the "perfect man".
The Sufi concept of a God who is "all in all" differs radically from the orthodox conviction that the further he is placed from his creation, the more he is glorified. Historically it is a marvel that Sufism grew out of the bedrock of Islam but its development will not surprise Christians who believe that man was made in the image of God and that his highest glory is to be conformed to the divine image and be partaker of the divine nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The mystical quest in Islam was perhaps to be expected for, as it has been put, there is a "God-shaped vacuum" in every human heart that no religion based purely on ethics and formal rites can ultimately fill.
To become a Sufi a Muslim must attach himself to a tariqah, one of the Sufi orders, and submit himself to a pir or master as we have seen. Only when this master adorns the disciple with a khirqah, a robe inducting him into the order, does he become a recognised Sufi, and only then can he embark on a valid pilgrimage through the various stages towards his goal of union with God.
- Accordingly, whenever an unknown dervish comes into a convent or wishes to join a company of Sufis, they ask him "Who was the Pir that taught thee?" and "From whose hand didst thou receive the khirqa?" Sufis recognise no relationship but these two, which they regard as all-important. They do not allow anyone to associate with them, unless he can show to their satisfaction that he is lineally connected in both these ways with a fully accredited Pir. (Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p.23).
The initial Sufi experience is not, as it is for true Christians, a rebirth experience in which the man, once born of the flesh, is now born of the Spirit, has a totally new relationship to God and knowledge of him, and can through his unity with God in the Spirit develop the relationship. Rather the Sufi really seeks only "to become aware of what one has always been from eternity (azal) without one's having realised it until the necessary transformation has come about" (Nasr,Living Sufism, p.7).
The major Sufi orders are the Suhrawardiyya (founded by one as-Suhrawardi), the Qadiriyya (attributed to Sufism's most famous personality, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani), the Chishtiyya (its master Mu'iniddin Chishti who is buried at Ajmer in India), the Shadhiliyya, the Mawlawiyya (a Turkish order founded by Jalaluddin Rumi who is buried in Konya in Turkey), and the Naqshabandiyya (which is prominent in Iran and other parts of Asia).
2. A Brief Analysis of Sufi Stages and Experiences.
The goal of the Sufi is to reach a personal knowledge of his Creator until knower and known are one and there is no awareness of any distinction of personality between them. Like all orthodox Muslims Sufis reject the concept of incarnation (hulul) and do not believe that God can become man. They also resist pantheistic tendencies, carefully distinguishing between God and his servants, while nevertheless teaching that man's aim must be to attain to such a high state of consciousness of God that his personality may no longer be distinguished from God's essence and character. Man does not have this knowledge by nature, however, and each prospective Sufi must prepare for a course which will take him through many stages and experiences before he completes his journey.
- Of course the Sufis never tire of emphasizing that the end of Sufism is not to possess such and such a virtue or state as such but to reach God beyond all states and virtues. But to reach the Transcendent beyond the virtues, man must first possess the virtues; to reach the station of annihilation and subsistence in God, man must have already passed through the other stages and stations.
(Nasr, Living Sufism, p.58).The Sufi who sets out to seek God calls himself a 'traveller' (salik), he advances by slow 'stages' (maqamat) along a path (tariqat) to the goal of union with Reality (fana fi'l-Haqq). ... The Sufi's 'path' is not finished until he has traversed all the 'stages', making himself perfect in every one of them before advancing to the next, and has also experienced whatever 'states' it pleases God to bestow upon him. (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.28, 29).
- The early mystics of Islam, however, devoted themselves primarily to the first of the three stages, that is, Purgation. To the mystics, at-tariq (the Pathway) was a method of self-purification acquired through the cleansing of the senses and through bodily discipline. Gradually the Sufis began to develop the second stage, the is, Illumination. Al-Muhasibi (A.D. 781-857), who pioneered with his disciples in the pathways of Purgation, was one of the first to declare that as purification brings freedom from the attachments of this world the Sufi might expect to arrive at the stage of Illumination and thence proceed to the unitive life in God. (Jurji, "Illumination - A Sufi Doctrine", The Muslim World, Vol.27, p.129).
- The whole of Sufism rests on the belief that when the individual self is lost, the Universal Self is found, or, in religious language, that ecstasy affords the only means by which the soul can directly communicate and become united with God. (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.59).
- In the Sufism of the orders this ecstasy or trance-like 'state' is called a hal, though in Sufism proper a hal more strictly refers to the succession of illuminations, through experiencing which the Sufi progresses a further 'stage' (maqtam) towards the goal of spiritual perfection. (Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, p.200).
A Christian must surely be affected by the whole nature of Sufism. True Christianity is by nature mystical and anyone born of the Holy Spirit will not only seek to become conformed to the image of his Lord but will also surely experience many proofs of the Spirit's presence in his soul. Indeed it is a New Testament principle that where such a relationship between man and God truly exists, the formal restraints of legal ethics and rituals have no binding effect as the believer has the motivation towards truth and right-living within him. It is hardly surprising that Sufis have often sought to break away from the dull strictures of formal Islamic law and have, in orthodox eyes, often shown scant respect for it.
- And so for all the actions of life: no outward law regulates the Sufi in regard to them, whether the one way or the other; only the Golden Mean and the General Happiness.
(Gairdner, "The Way of a Mohammedan Mystic", The Muslim World, Vol.2, p.255).
- "The way of the multitude is this", said Sari, "that you observe prayer five times daily behind the imam, and that you give alms - if it be in money, half a dinar out of every twenty. The way of the elect is this, that you thrust the world behind you altogether and do not concern yourself with any of its trappings; if you are offered it, you will not accept it. These are the two ways". (Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p.169).
3. The Different Stages in the Sufi Quest.
It is not easy to define the various stages of the Sufi path, especially as there is no universal consensus as to the exact identity of each stage or even of the order in which they are reached. It is generally agreed that the goal is al-Haqiqah, "the True Reality", also known as fana, self-annihilation" or absorption in God. Very prominent in the Sufi stages is ma'rifah, "knowledge" of God, or the gnosis of his essence and presence. In some cases it is set forth as one of the stages towards the goal, in others it is identified with the haqiqah as the object of the quest. These two, together with the initial tariqah, "the path", constitute the three great stages of Sufism. A Sufi must attain to these after graduating from the basic laws of Islam which are set forth, Sufis believe, as a principal code for the unenlightened Muslim masses. The foundation of the shari'ah, the law, and the three ascending Stages of Sufism towards the goal of complete union with God through a loss of self-consciousness are defined as follows:
- Nasut is the natural human state in which one lives following the rules of the shari'a;Malakut is the nature of angels, to reach which one treads the tariqa, the path of purification; whilst
Jabarut is the nature of power, to attain which one follows the way of enlightenment, ma'rifa, until one swoons into
Fana, absorption into Deity, the State of Reality (Haqiqa), often called in the order literature `Alam al-Ghaib, 'the (uncreated) world of the mystery'. (Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, p.160).
One of the initial stages is said to be an attitude of indifference towards good or bad fortune. The Sufi believes that adversity, causing discomfort, depression or discourage is brought about through God's deliberate "contraction" (qabdh) and that prosperity, joyful circumstances and the like, come from his "expansion" (bast). He humbly resigns himself to both, seeking not to be affected by his circumstances but to fix his devotion purely on his Lord and Master. Qur'anic sanction is found for these contrasting acts of God and the Sufi's willingness to abide in them.
- The Sufi has submitted himself to God, who says "God contracts and expands" (Koran II:245). Thus, whether he gives contraction or expansion, the Sufi only desires what is desired by his Beloved. (Nurbakhsh, Sufism, p.27).
There are many different stages, too many to cover in detail here, but perhaps some attention should be given to the ultimate stage - fana - for all the intermediate stages are different forms of disassociation from all that is "under the sun", to use a Biblical expression (from Ecclesiastes), in the cause of being absorbed into the consciousness of the Supreme Being. (Alternatively, the Sufi seeks to shake off the identity of his nafs, his individual soul with all its ungodly tendencies, similar to the concept of "the flesh" as it is set forth in opposition to the way of the Spirit in the New Testament, especially the eighth chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans).
Fana is the ultimate goal - a dissolution of the Sufi's consciousness of his own identity through a total absorption in the knowledge of God. "As a technical term in Sufism, the word annihilation signifies the annihilation of the attributes of human nature and their transformation into Divine Attributes. In the state of annihilation, the Sufi is completely immersed in the contemplation of the Attributes of God and oblivious to his own self" (Nurbakhsh, Sufism, p.86). It should again be emphasised that this does not lead to a pantheistic theosophy, for Sufis, true to the Muslim faith, are always careful to distinguish between God and his servants. The union comes in the realm of consciousness and spiritual perspective. The distinction is well set forth in this comment: "The mystic does not become one with God, he becomes conscious of his oneness with Him" (Tritton, Islam, p.101).
It is true to say that the Sufi should never be able to proclaim that he has reached this stage for his complete absorption in God and self-annihilation, his fana fit-tawhid, fil Haqq ("Union with the Unity, the Reality"), will surely make him lose all consciousness of his own identity and personal state.
- The highest stage of fana is reached when even the consciousness of having attained fana disappears. This is what the Sufis call 'the passing-away of passing-away (fana al-fana). The mystic is now wrapped in contemplation of the divine essence. (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.60).
4. Dhikr - The Remembrance of Allah.
The commonest means of inducing a state of ecstasy is the dhikr ceremony. A group of Sufis will gather together and begin a series of chantings, either of the ninety-nine names of Allah, or just simply of the name of Allah himself, until the devotees collapse in a state of trance. The famous "whirling dervishes" obtain their name and fame from this very ceremony. Today it has become customary for numerous adherents of Sufism, who know nothing of true Sufism or a deep spiritual quest coupled with acts of self-discipline to attain to a higher state of spirituality, to seek purely the supposed state of "ecstasy" that can be obtained through regular concentration on and recitation of the name and attributes of Allah.
- After an experience of nearly thirteen years of close contact with Egyptian Moslems, I have no hesitation in saying that, as to the bulk of the population of Egypt, their real religion is Sufism, as represented by the dhikr. They know practically nothing of the philosophic Mysticism of their books, but through tradition they know something of the spiritual achievement of their saints; and in the dhikr they attempt to realize the ultimate experience of the Sufi saint by a physically induced ecstasy, ignoring the fact that these saints only reached their experiences by a long and painful road. (Swan, "The Dhikr", The Muslim World, Vol. 2, p.381).
- According to some this means the mentioning, or the remembering of God constitutes the quintessence of prayer; according to others it indicates the excellence of invocation as compared with prayer. (Burckhardt, An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, p.101).
5. How Sufism Relates to the Quran and Hadith.
If Sufism is a later development within Islam, how does it reconcile itself with original Islam, the religion of Muhammad as set forth in the Qur'an and Hadith? The Sufi answer is that this original Islam has the germs of Sufism and that both the Qur'an and Hadith contain numerous passages indicating the deeper nature of true Islam, that which later blossomed out into its great mystical movement.
Expressions such as these in the Qur'an are produced by Sufis as proof that Islam is, at heart, a spiritual religion: "To God belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the Presence of God. For God is All-Pervading, All-Knowing" (Surah 2.115); and "We are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein" (Surah 50.16). Although Muhammad himself could hardly be described as a mystic, let alone a Sufi, there are verses in the Qur'an which do at least support the Sufi contention, prompting one scholar to say: "however un-favorable to mysticism the Koran as a whole may be, I cannot assent to the view that it supplies no basis for a mystical interpretation of Islam" (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.22). As the Qur'an is believed to be the uncreated Word of God it is little wonder Sufis seek to authenticate their movement with reference to its teaching and it is not surprising that they make much of these verses. "For these mystical texts are the chief encouragement and justification of the Sufi in his belief that he also may commune with God" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.17).
Another verse cherished by the Sufis is this one: "To God we belong, and to Him is our return" (Surah 2.156) as it seems to synchronise with their whole philosophy that man's objective and duty on earth is to strive spiritually until he comes back to the knowledge of his Creator. The "return" must therefore be one in which the soul can be re-united with its Maker through a thorough spiritual devotion.
- The Sufis claim that the whole of Sufism is summed up in this verse, and it is often chanted at their gatherings and sometimes repeated a certain number of times on a rosary; and in fact, although every believer is necessarily 'for God' in some degree or other, the mystic may be said to be 'for God' in a way which the rest of the community is not. (Lings, What is Sufism?, p.28).
- My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing Nawafil (praying or doing extra deeds besides what is obligatory) till I love him, so I become his sense of hearing with which he hears, and his sense of sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he grips, and his leg with which he walks; and if he asks Me, I will give him, and if he asks my protection (Refuge), I will protect him. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.8, p.336).
- This is called the "self-revealing" (tajalla) of Allah and is only really intelligible through the mystical contemplation, which sees all things in God, as it sees God in all things. (MacDonald, The Religious Attitude and Life in Islam, p.170).
6. Some Famous Sufis in Muslim History.
There are a number of Sufis who stand out in the history of Islamic mysticism, all of whom have made their contribution in one way or another to the development of Sufism. One of the most famous of the early Sufis was Junayd, the head of a large body of disciples, who died in Baghdad in 910 AD. He "was the greatest exponent of the 'sober' school of Sufism and elaborated a theosophical doctrine which determined the whole course of orthodox mysticism in Islam" (Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p.199).
Junayd, being one of the early Sufi masters, was not given to excesses in his mystic devotions and sought chiefly through a process of self-denial to discover the way to God. The following saying, which seems to be far more Christian than Muslim in origin and emphasis, is attributed to him: "Sufism is that God makes thee die to thyself and become resurrected in Him" (quoted in Nasr, Living Sufism, p.57). It was this very principle of dying to self that later became the foundation of the Sufi concept of fana, being lost in the consciousness of God, and Junayd was one of the first to use this expression.
At the other extreme we find the famous Persian Sufi master Bayazid al-Bistami, "first of the 'intoxicated' Sufis who, transported upon the wings of mystical fervour, found God within his own soul and scandalised the orthotox by ejaculating, 'Glory to Me! How great is My Majesty'" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.54). Sobriety was not at the heart of this man's mystic experiences. He not only established the concept of being so united to God that the identities of the Creator and creature become one but also gave the ecstatic character of this experience its impetus. As was to be expected, he was highly unpopular with the orthodox Muslims of his day. He is credited with many bold and daring statements, of which the one quoted above is an example. Here is another:
- For instance, one day Bayazid was in his cell.
Someone came and said, "Is Bayazid in the house?"
He answered, "Is there anyone in the house but God?
(Nurbakhsh, Sufism, p.53).
Some Muslims say that a true Muslim on pilgrimage will see the Ka'aba the first time, the Ka'aba and the Lord of the House the second, and only his Lord on the third. Bayazid went further:
- "The first time I entered the Holy House," stated Abu Yazid, "I saw the Holy House. The second time I entered it, I saw the Lord of the House. The third time I saw neither the House nor the Lord of the House" (Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p.121).
- One day someone came to Bayazid's door and knocked. The shaykh said, "Who are you seeking?" The man replied "Bayazid". Bayazid then answered, "Poor Bayazid! I have been seeking him for thirty years but have found no sign or trace of him". (Nurbakhsh, Sufism, p.97).
Abu Sa'id followed in the footsteps of Bayazid, making many bold statements calculated to antagonise the orthodox. On one occasion he told one of thefuqaha, the Muslim jurists, that he could read his thoughts (many anecdotes have been recorded of his alleged power to discern the thoughts of men). The jurist had thought to himself that he could not find Abu Sa'id's teaching in the seven-sevenths of the Qur'an (that is, the whole Qur an). Abu Sa'id replied that his doctrine was contained in the "eighth-seventh" of the book, meaning a special revelation given by God to his favourite servants. This concept of an independent revelation given to a Muslim after the revelation of the Qur' an is diametrically opposed to the Muslim doctrine of the finality of prophethood.
- Here Abu Sa'id sets aside the partial, finite, and temporal revelation on which Islam is built, and appeals to the universal infinite, and everlasting revelation which the Sufis find in their hearts. As a rule, even the boldest Mohammedan mystics shrink from uttering such a challenge. (Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p.60).
- Of Rabi'a her biographer wrote that she was "on fire with love to God", and she was one of the first among the Sufis to teach the doctrine of disinterested love to God. She was asked if she hated Satan, and answered "No", and when asked if she loved the Prophet, she said, "My love to God has so possessed me that no place remains for hating aught, or loving any save Him". (Smith, "Rabi'a, The Woman Saint', The Muslim World, Vol.20, p.341).
Later Sufi mystics considered him a true martyr even though many at the time disowned him. They charged him with teaching hulul, i.e. incarnation, in that he suggeated that God himself joined in union with man in all his essence rather than that man attained to a state of identifying with God in his attributes and personality. The later Sufis, however, endeavoured to interpret al-Hallaj's doctrine as distinct from the concept of hulul and "they have also done their best to clear Hallaj from the suspicion of having taught it (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.151).
- The general line taken was that he was right in his teaching, but that he ought not to have published abroad the secrets of Sufism, a proceeding for which he deserve to be put to death. It must be remembered that later Sufis left out many of the distinctive features of Hallaj's doctrine. They discarded the termHulul, and they replaced his view of the union of the human soul with God by a doctrine of monism, in which all created things including the souls of men, are merely mirrors reflecting one or other of the attributes of God. (Thompson. "Al-Hallaj, Saint and Martyr", The Muslim World, Vol.19, p.401).
After the heyday of Sufism in the early centuries of Islam the movement began to lose credibility and it took the great Islamic scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali to give it a more sober image and respectability among the general public. Al-Ghazzali was a renowned orthodox theologian and, after a period of cynical agnosticism and depression, he declared himself a champion of Sufism, claiming to have found peace and purpose at last through a personal experience of refuge in God alone. His mysticism was chiefly of a less emotional kind than his predecessors, concentrating on intellectual insight and understanding, and it is therefore not surprising that "he is not regarded as being a practising Sufi by the ecstatics and gnostics" (Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, p.52). Yet it was he who reconciled Sufism with orthodox Islam and a fine example of the way he did this is found in his definition of the four stages of the knowledge of tawhid, the "unity" of God, in his greatest work:
- The first stage is like the outer cover of a cocoanut, the second stage is the inner cover of a cocoanut, the third is the kernel of a cocoanut, and the fourth stage the oil of the kernel. The first stage of Tauhid is to utter by tongue "There is no deity but God". The second stage is to confirm it by heart. The third stage is like kernel which can be seen by inner light or by way of Kashf. The fourth stage is like oil in kernel. He sees nothing but God. (Imam Gazzali'sIhya Ulum-id-Din, Vol.4, p.238).
- The influence of al-Ghazali in Islam is incalculable. He not only reconstituted orthodox Islam, making Sufism an integral part of it, but also was a great reformer of Sufism, purifying it of un-Islamic elements and putting it at the service of orthodox religion. (Rahman, Islam, p.140).
Sufism is a remarkable phenomenon in Islam and Christian readers must, after reading this section, have recognised how similar it is to Christianity in so many of its facets and objectives. In many ways its spiritual character is far more consistent with Christianity than orthodox Islam. The Christian witness to Islam has here its greatest potential for making its message heard and understood.
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