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When it comes to discussing whether Sufism can be considered the ‘heart of Islam’, it is important to establish a methodological framework, within which this discussion will take place. Based upon this proposition, we can well suggest that researching the subject matter in question should be ultimately concerned with making a qualitative inquiry into whether Sufism does emanate the very spirit of Islam, as a religiously formatted sublimation of one’s strive to objectify itself within the surrounding reality.
Given the fact that Sufism and Islam are indeed closely interconnected, in the historical and theological senses of this word, the suggestion that the mentioned ascetic-esoteric movement within Islam can be considered the religion’s actual ‘heart’, appears formally legitimate. This, however, is far from being the case de facto. The reason for this is that, due to being essentially the form of a cognitive/perceptual ‘pantheism’, Sufism does not quite subscribe to the monotheistic conventions of Islam, as we know them.
In this paper, I will explore the appropriateness of the above-stated at length, while promoting the idea that the theological/philosophical postulates of Sufism do not account for the pathway towards grasping the true significance of Islam, as one of the world’s major religions.
One of the major differences between Islam, on one hand, and the rest of the world’s monotheistic religions (Christianity and Judaism), on the other, is that unlike what it happened to be the case with Christians and Judaists, Muslims do not experience the temptation to anthropomorphize their god Allah. The reason for this is that the theological paradigm of Islam presupposes the sheer totality of the physically experienced emanations of divinity: “O mankind! Worship your Lord (Allah), Who created you and those who were before you so that you may become Al-Muttaqun (the pious)”.1 This explains why the adherents of Islam make a deliberate point in refusing to come up with the visualized depictions of Allah – hence, establishing the objective preconditions for Islam to be considered the most ‘non-mystical’ of all monotheistic religions.
After all, according to Prophet Muhammad, in order for just about anyone to be considered a thoroughly committed Muslim, who fully qualifies for the Islamic version of paradise, he or she simply needs to never cease being observant of the provisions of the Islamic law of Sharia, while facing life challenges. In its turn, this presupposes that the mystical leanings of Muslims are essentially counterproductive; because they derive out of these people’s unconscious strive towards ‘miracles’ – hence, revealing their lack of faith in Allah. After all, according to the theological paradigm of Islam, the Quran is itself the biggest miracle ever.
In the formal sense of this word, Sufis fully adhere to the Quranic provision of Allah’s omnipotence. According to them, God indeed deserves to be praised, on the account of its greatness as a ‘thing in itself’: “The glory of God consists in His independence of anyone and in His power to do whatsoever He wills: such He has always been and such He shall be forever”.2
What appears rather peculiar, in this respect, is that there is an unmistakable spirit of ‘pantheism’, emanated by the very manner, in which Sufis go about reflecting upon the idea of divinity. The reason for this is that, according to the proponents of Sufism, the surrounding reality’s physically observed emanations cannot be discussed outside of what God really is. Hence, the Sufi concept of the ‘unity of being’, which implies that the image of God can be found even in the physical reality’s most elementary components: “The insight that there is only one Absolute Being in the whole Universe and that whatever exists does so through His existence has been called ‘the philosophy of the Unity of Being”. 3
In this respect, Sufism can be well compared to Hinduism, as an essentially pantheistic religion, which sacralizes the surrounding nature, as the very source of divinity. However, as we are well aware of, in the theological sense of this word, the term ‘pantheism’ can be considered synonymous to the term ‘paganism’. Yet, the very emergence of Islam in 622 A.D. was predetermined by the sheer strength of Muhammad’s resolution to destroy all the pagan idols in Mecca. This also points out to the main conceptual inconsistency between Islam and Sufism – whereas, Muslims believe that Allah is an emotional being, who ‘presides’ over the universe, Sufis promote the idea that Allah is the universe itself.
Another major difference between Islam and Sufism has to do with how both of them reflect upon the effects of God’s existence on people’s lives. According to the proponents of mainstream Islam, Allah is indeed capable of bestowing the most committed believers with a number of different favors: “Allah is full of Kindness to (His) slaves”.4 The reason for this is that the very theological principle of Islam revolves around the assumption that, because Allah created people in his own image, just about any person is ‘divine’ to an extent. Sufis, however, do not seem to agree with this Islamic proposition. The Sufi line of reasoning, in this respect, is based upon the logically sound assumption that being ontologically ‘superior’, causes cannot even be partially contained in their effects: “God causes Man to know Him through Himself with a knowledge that is not linked to any faculty, a knowledge in which the existence of Man is merely metaphorical”.5
In other words, divinity is not something that resides within an individual, which in turn implies that, while striving to attain the state of ‘oneness’ with Allah, people can only rely on themselves. Consequently, this suggests that, in order for just about anyone to be able to come closer to the realization of God’s ‘shining truth’, the concerned individual must be willing to remain on the path of a spiritual self-improvement, which in turn would require him or her be thoroughly focused on accomplishing the task. This, of course, presupposes that, while trying to attain the ‘state of unity’ with God, Sufis cannot help but to act in the manner inconsistent with this state’s provision that those, unified with God, may not be considered the ‘existential sovereigns’ of their own. For Sufis, one’s ability to experience the sensation of being ‘united’ with God, positively relates to the extent of his or her ‘mental integrity’, reflected by how the individual in question makes conscious inquiries in the totality of God’s wholesomeness.
That is, Sufis do not relate to the ‘unity of being’, as the integral part of their life, but rather as the final objective of their religiously-cognitive quest. In other words, Sufi ‘Allah’ is more of a religious fetish than a concretely existing tribal deity, who is being primarily concerned with ‘safeguarding’ Muslims and with encouraging them to act in one way or another, by the mean of exposing believers to a variety of different ‘stick and carrot’ incentives.
In light of the above-stated, the fact that Sufism is being closely associated with a number of essentially ritualistic practices (such as the ‘whirling dance’ of dervishes), appears thoroughly explainable. Because many of these practices are meditation-based, it will be fully appropriate to suggest that they allow Sufis to induce a certain psychological state of mind, which in turn makes it possible for them to experience the ‘ecstatic’ sensation of being favored by Allah.
What it means is that Sufism can be best described as the tool of an ‘existential ego-centrism’, on the part of its practitioners – something that stands in striking contrast to the Quranic provision that it is specifically pleasing God (and not themselves), with which Muslims should seek to preoccupy themselves, as their main priority in life. After all, the Quran clearly states that, in order for a Muslim to be favored by God, he or she must be an utterly humble person, fully capable of keeping its sensual urges under control – even if they happened to be formally religious: “Remember your Lord within yourself, humbly and with fear and without loudness in words in the mornings, and in the afternoons and be not of those who are neglectful”.6
Yet, it is namely the sheer sensuality of Sufis’ love of God, which accounts for its foremost feature. Whereas, the conventional Islamic virtue of love towards God implies ‘submissiveness’, the Sufi one implies ‘ecstasy’. This is the reason why there are a number of clearly defined erotic overtones to how Sufis elaborate on their understanding of what one’s love towards Allah is ought to be all about: “Human satisfaction is equanimity (istiwa-yi dil) towards Fate, whether it withholds or bestows, and spiritual steadfastness (istiqamat) whether they be the manifestation of Divine Beauty (jamal) or of Divine Majesty (jalal)”.7
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For Sufis, the notion of divinity is synonymous with the notion of an ‘overwhelming beauty’, whereas, the Islamic mainstream conceptualization of divinity presupposes that God is ‘omnipotence’ and ‘justice’. Unlike the rest of Muslims, Sufis do not seek the state of being ‘dissolved’ in God. Rather, they strive to experience the quasi-religious sensual pleasure, by the mean of reflecting upon what is the sensation of being ‘dissolved’ in God may feel like. Therefore, the suggestion that Sufism can be well discussed in terms of an ‘Islamic heresy’ is not altogether deprived of a rationale.
The validity of this suggestion can be further illustrated, in regards to the following:
- Sufism is not directly linked to Prophet Muhammad. In its turn, this implies that, even though Sufis do often cite from the Quran, while seeking to justify the appropriateness of their views on divinity, there is the element of an interpretative speculation to how they do it.
- Sufism teaches that there is an irreconcilable gap between what can be considered ‘external’ (exoteric) Islam, on one hand, and ‘internal’ (esoteric) Islam, on the other. In this respect, Sufism can be well compared to the esoteric doctrine of Kabbalah in Judaism. After all, just as it is being the case with Cabbalists, Sufis do believe that, in order for a Muslim to be able to reconcile with God, the concerned person must be capable of recognizing the ‘secret signs’ of God’s nearby presence, which in turn implies that he or she must be utterly imaginative/mystically-minded. As Chittick pointed out, while outlining the Sufi philosophy of Ibn Arabi “Unveiling… is knowledge that God gives directly to the servants when He lifts the veil separating Himself from them and ‘opens the door’ to the perception of invisible realities… unveiling is associated with imagination”.8 This idea, of course, cannot be referred to as anything but highly speculative, as there are no references in the Quran, as to the fact that a Muslim believer must necessarily be imaginative/mystically minded, in order to be able to win favors with God.
- Sufism opposes the idea that in the eyes of Allah, all Muslims are equal. As Corbin noted: “Sufism divides men into three classes: (a) the disciples of the science of the heart… the mystics; (b) the disciples of the rational intellect… the scholastic theologians; (c) simple believers”.9 According to Sufis, it is specifically those Muslims that belong to the first of the mentioned categories, who have what it takes to be able to gain an in-depth insight into the divine essence of Allah, which in turn implies that, when compared to the mystically-minded Sufis, the rest of Muslims are less ‘worthy’. It is understood, of course, that this particular Sufi belief contradicts the egalitarian spirit of Islam, as a religion that proclaims that it is not the manner how a particular Muslim thinks (meditates), which is being reflective of his or her ‘worthiness’ in the eyes of God, but rather the way in which the concerned individual acts.
- Many of Sufi practices, the participation in which is expected to ‘enlighten’ Muslims (such as mentioned earlier ‘whirling dance’) are essentially heathen. One of the reasons for this is that the attainment of the state of ‘enlightenment’, which these practices supposedly enable, appears to have the essentially mechanistic subtleties. After all, if one ‘whirls’ for long enough, he or she will indeed be able get dizzy to an extent to beginning to see ‘mystical things’. In its turn, this implies that the fact that some Sufis are indeed capable of altering the workings of their psyche, has nothing to do with the self-presumed ‘godliness’, on these people’s part. Rather, it indicates that Sufis tend to ignore many of the Quran’s foremost commandments – especially the ones that prescribe believers to adopt a strongly intolerant stance towards polytheism/paganism: “Fight them (heathens) until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone in the whole of the world”.10 This, of course, can hardly be thought of as the indication of Sufism’s ‘loyalty’ to the true spirit of Islam.
- Sufism implies that it is possible for a Muslim believer to attain the state of semi-divinity. The validity of this suggestion can be shown, in regards to the fact that, contrary to what the Quran teaches, Sufis tend to think of Prophet Muhammad in essentially the same way as Christians think of Jesus – that is, they believe that Muhammad was nothing short of a semi-divine figure, who deserves to be revered as much, as Allah himself. Moreover, some Sufis claim that just about any Muslim can be elevated to the position of being considered a Muhammad’s equal: “As the (Sufi) mystic becomes more attuned to subtle messages (from God), more surrendered and more obedient to the Divine Intent, the transmutation of Spirit into Matter may become increasingly concrete”.11 Beside the fact that this idea contradicts the Sufi assumption that divinity cannot possibly extrapolate itself in a mortal man, it also appears utterly inconsistent with the theological postulates of the Quran, as a book that presupposes that, in their relation with Allah, all Muslims are nothing but his lowly slaves. This once again suggests that, even though Sufism and Islam are indeed closely related, they do not derive out of each other – something that would have been the case, if Sufism was a direct extrapolation of the spirit of Islam.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that Sufism cannot be referred to as the ‘heart of Islam’, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a good reason to think of Sufism in terms of an ‘Islamic heresy’. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that this somehow implies the sheer ‘wickedness’ of the exoteric-ascetic movement in question.
Quite to the contrary – when compared to Islam proper, Sufism appears to be much more progressive, in the sense of how it ‘frees’ the notion of divinity of the prejudices of a tribal/primeval living. Whereas, the strictly Quranic description of Allah, presumes him being a revengefully-minded deity, who cannot be referred to as 100% omnipotent, Sufis think of Allah as an impartial and yet intelligent/loving force, which animates the universe. This, of course, naturally prompts Sufis to adopt a rather tolerant attitude towards the affiliates of other monotheistic religions, which in turn advances the cause of a religious peace on Earth.
Al-Hujwiri, Uthman. Revelation of Mystery (Kashf Al Mahjub). Translated by R.A. Nicholson. Lahore: Zia-ul-Quran Publications, 2001. Web.
Chittick, William. The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn Al-Arabi’s Cosmology. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998. Web.
Corbin, Henry. Alone, with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi. Princeton: Bollingen, 1969. Web.
Halligan, Fredrica. “The Creative Imagination of the Sufi Mystic, Ibn Arabi.” Journal of Religion and Health 40, no. 2 (2001): 275-287. Web.
Nurbakhsh, Javad. “Two Approaches to the Principle of the Unity of Being.” In The Heritage of Sufism, edited by Leonard Lewisohn, xvi-1. Oxford: Oneworld, 1999. Web.
The Noble Quran. Tranlated by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali. Riyadh: King Fahd Complex, 1991. Web.
- The Noble Quran (2:21).
- Uthman Al-Hujwiri, Revelation of Mystery (Kashf Al Mahjub), trans. R.A. Nicholson (Lahore: Zia-ul-Quran Publications, 2001), 72.
- Javad Nurbakhsh, “Two Approaches to the Principle of the Unity of Being.” In The Heritage of Sufism, ed. Leonard Lewisohn (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999), xvi.
- The Noble Quran (2:207).
- Al-Hujwiri, Revelation of Mystery (Kashf Al Mahjub), 366.
- The Noble Quran (8:205).
- Al-Hujwiri, Revelation of Mystery (Kashf Al Mahjub), 264.
- William Chittick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn Al-Arabi’s Cosmology (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), xxii.
- Henry Corbin, Alone, with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi (Princeton: Bollingen, 1969), 230.
- The Noble Quran (8:39).
- Fredrica Halligan, “The Creative Imagination of the Sufi Mystic, Ibn Arabi.” Journal of Religion and Health 40, no. 2 (2001): 285.