What is Sufism?
Sufism has come to mean a wide range of beliefs that center on the quest for personal enlightenment in the union with God. Sufis are sometimes described as the mystics of Islam, but Sufism fits awkwardly in the categories of religions. Technically Sufism is a denomination of Islam, however there are many Sufis that are not Muslims and there are many Muslims that reluctant to consider Sufism part of Islam. One of the few concepts that Sufis seem to agree on is that all religions offer a path to salvation or enlightenment and that true God realization, no matter how it is achieved, transcends the limitations and classification of any religion. Basically, a saint in any religion is equal to a saint in any other religion because they are inspired by the same Divine source. Initially the term Sufi referred only to those who had achieved God realization, but it has since come to be applied to anyone who follows that particular spiritual path. The name Sufi comes from "suf," the Arabic word for wool or "saf," the Persian word for pure. The dervishes or advanced students of Sufism wore inexpensive wool clothes as part of their life of renunciation.
Sufism and Islam
Sufism began as religious teachers in the Middle East came to learn the Truth of Islam directly from Mohammad. Masters who were "ordained" directly by Mohammad founded three major Sufi schools or orders. The most essential mystical knowledge was then passed down from each master to a disciple selected to follow as the leader of the school. Other disciples were sent out as masters to establish new schools. A Sufi school (ashram or convent) is often a community center that may include a residence for the students and master, a school, hospital, orphanage or any number of community services. Some of these services may be very modest and others may be very extensive, but they are often a vital part of the local community. Schools are sometimes set up near the tomb of a Sufi saint in order to maintain the Shrine and provide services to pilgrims, including places to retreat and meditate. While mainstream Islam promotes community service, mosques rarely umbrella such services beyond theological schools since mainstream Islam distinguishes the needs of the spirit from the needs of the body.
There is no firm historical source for Sufism. Many of the early orders were considered an integrated part of Islam, but as teachings were codified and the elements of Shi'i and Sunni Islam became more distinct, Sufism emerged with an identity. One of the basic idea of Sufism is to minimize the self or individual identity. Belonging to a particular group with a unique name is contradictory to this effort. It is said, "a Sufi is one who is not," and with a philosophy that seeks the destruction of self-identity it is thought that Sufi's received their name from outsiders. Initially the term Sufi referred only to those who had achieved God realization, but it has since come to be applied to anyone who follows that spiritual path.
While Sufism did not exist prior to Islam, Sufi doctrine contains many elements that go beyond the teaching of Mohammad. Islam is an external structure in which the individual exists while the internal quest for enlightenment belongs to a realm of Sufi knowledge. This knowledge integrates Islam and ancient doctrine that resembles elements of Greek Philosophy, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism that are part of the Sufi path to God-realization. The most sacred knowledge of the Sufi historically traces the evolution of Sufi doctrine. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable that the Sufi doctrine that differs the most from the rest of Islam had its beginnings much earlier (although this is a very non-Muslim view of Sufism). For many years these extra qualities created a great deal of friction between mainstream Islam and the Muslim mystics. After centuries of falling in and out of favor, Sufis became integrated and an important central part of Islamic culture and society.
A cornerstone of mysticism is that true knowledge of God is achieved directly and not through an intermediary like a prophet, saint or priest. Over the centuries this has led to a great deal of political conflict between mystics and non-mystics. If a cleric or Priest behaves or commands something that seems in conflict with dogma, the individual is not in a position to disagree as long as there is no direct relationship between God and the individual.
Many Sufi orders encourage honoring Saints and Prophets by visiting them if they are alive or their tombs if they have passed on. Pilgrims often will go to ask for favors in the form of miracles or prosperity. In many communities the pilgrims are people from other religions who come to the tombs in hopes of finding favor or receiving miracles.
The high status afforded saints in communities influenced by Sufism implies an alternative means to communicate with God other than through the Imam, the Islamic clerics. In a fundamentalist Islamic community the highest-ranking Imam is the supreme authority, both politically and religiously, and Sufism presents a potential conflict to this authority that has over the centuries led to persecution of Sufis in several Arab countries. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two countries where the tombs of Sufi saints have been destroyed. In some areas teachings of the Sufi masters are held in high regard practicing Sufism is discouraged or even criminalized.
Sufism outside of Islam
The difference between Sufis and Islam is sometimes as extreme as the difference between Mormons and Catholics, depending on the particular order. Some Western Sufi orders have even completely divorced themselves from Islam altogether. Yet, Sufism is integrated in Islam. The mystical aspects of Sufism may have ancient influences, but these traditions center on what goes on within a individual. Islam stresses service, virtue, honesty and charity, the essence of Sufism and a foundation that is necessary for the inner spirituality of Sufism. It may seem that either Sufism influenced Islam or the other way around, but there is little surviving recorded history that sheds light on this. Even when an order does not incorporate Islam for the laws and practice of daily life, there are disciplines and doctrine to the place of Islam.
Islam recognizes Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but they credit Mohammad for reintroducing the true religion without contamination. Sufis extend this, believing that all prophets and saints of all religions are inspired by the same source and the rejection of any one is a rejection of the essential Truth behind them all-the one God. That one God is absolute, extending beyond time or space, and all that is within the universe is of God, including good and evil.
Tenants of Sufism
The basic Sufi tenants are slightly different from order to order with some variations, additions and or subtractions, but generally they include the following:
The Sufi Way
The Sufi Way consists of four stages. The first stage involves learning the morality and ethics of all religion, which is accomplished by studying Islam. Non-Islamic Sufis rely on other religions or the writings of Sufi saints to establish the foundation of morals and ethics. The second stage is the path of Sufism, which is a focus on internal practices in the same way that Islam offers the external practices of law and worship. The first two stages are accomplished through practice and imitation, basically surrendering blindly to rituals. The third stage is where the aspirant begins to understand the meaning behind the teaching and practices, experiencing God within and the mystical states of Sufism. The fourth stage is ma'rifah or gnosis. This is where the knowledge of God is realized and is only achieved by prophets, great masters and saints. The goal of following the Sufi way (or to be devoted to any other religion) is not to become a saint, but rather to align your life with the will of God and to do all that you can to accept and live by God's Grace. Indeed, if your goal is to become a saint, it is all but assured that because of your own desires you will never become one.
Sufism in the West:
Sufism is much more complex than this description, but each order or school has its own unique departure from the most general concept of Sufism outlined here. There are dozens of Sufi orders in the West. Many represent orders in the East and adhere to Islam. Other Western orders allow non-Muslims to study the path, although the Master is usually a teacher in the direct line that goes back to those who were ordained by Mohammad. There are also a growing number of orders with teachers that are not in that direct line and have broken with Islam altogether.
Meher Baba's teachings are non-denominational and most of his followers are not Sufi. Sufism Reoriented is a group that has embraced Meher Baba's teachings and has published some of his most important books. The organization has roots with Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Master that came to this Country soon after the turn of the century. It should be said that Sufism Reoriented is not considered to be within the mainstream Islamic Sufism movement in the West. Meher Baba's teachings are intended to free Sufism so that those from other religions may embrace it. Meher Baba described all religions like rivers flowing the ocean. Only the rivers are all dry now as the water is misdirected from the main stream, and the ocean must flood the rivers. In his meditative work Meher Baba may have reoriented all religions towards the ocean of one God, although Sufism is the one in which he offered the most direct guidance through his writing.
No matter how it is explained, Sufism and any related movement is a spiritual force that is spreading. Jesus stated that loving God with all of your heart, soul and mind is the greatest commandment and that the second is love your neighbor as yourself. In no religion is this held to be more absolute and uncompromising than in Sufism. Every minuscule detail of Sufi doctrine, in virtually all denominations, holds these commandments to be all-important. If in your own heart, through your own beliefs, you can also embrace and live by these commandments of Christ, then your salvation and your union with God are in progress. For those that do not find the alignment and continuity in your own religion to follow these commandments, Sufism may be a place to learn more.
Sufism In Your Life
Remember, to be a Sufi is to be no more than a student of a school. The Sufi way is one that is accepting (not just tolerant) of all other religions, and some orders welcome non-Muslims while encouraging continued participation in one's own faith. For others, the extraordinary discipline and focus of Islamic life may be an essential component of a new spiritual path. Yet, to be a student is to choose your own commitment to study. Your encounter with Sufism may be no more than reading the words of Sufi Saints and the study of Sufi Philosophy to serve as simple spiritual inspiration. Whatever your circumstances, I encourage you to embrace your faith to find strength and direction in your own life. I introduce you to Sufism as a potential source of sustenance and direction along the way.
For anyone interested in mysticism, the study of Sufism is an area of riches. Mysticism in many ways provides a bridge between individual religions by exploring the experiences of personal spirituality. A good first encounter with Sufism would be through reading the works of the ancient Sufi poet Rumi, who is currently the bestselling poet in this country. Certainly anyone with spiritual interests of any religion will find rewards in an exploration and further understanding of Sufism.