Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: Sufism
To many persons, mysticism may seem to be a doctrine as specifically devised as a religious dogma. Actually, however, mysticism is a state of mind.
In almost every period of history, there were living in the same community, even as now, the theist, the pantheist, and the mystic, and others. The mystical principles in each age, though often worded differently, are fundamentally the same. If this were not so, the same results that constitute the mystical state would not be attained.
Further, what the mystics of each century have sought has likewise been the same. In fact, it is only by this similarity that we can identify a spiritual idealism as mysticism and as distinguished from a philosophy or religious conception.
When we study the magnum opus of the Jewish mystics or the celebrated writings of the Neo-Platonic, Islamic, or Christian mystics, we recognize the common ground. The phraseology is often different, their conception of the mystic’s function in human society may vary, but not that state of consciousness – that spiritual condition which constitutes mysticism.
The “Sufi mystics” were Islamic or Moslem. Their writings are some of the most inspiring and enlightening in mystical literature. We cannot help but thrill to their conceptions – their profound insights.
The name Sufi remains a matter of controversy even among the great authorities of Islamic literature. One source contends that the word “Sufi” is derived from an Arabic word “Safa” literally meaning “purified from worldly defilement.” In this sense, it refers to an individual who has been purged of those things of the physical world which bring contamination. Obviously, it implies that the Sufi, to gain such a title, had to experience certain initiations.
However, there are those who state that the word is from “Saff” meaning “rank.” In this sense, the Sufi is one of the first rank in his ability to commune with God.
The oldest Arabic treatises, however, relate that “Sufi” is a derivative from the word “Sief” or wool. It is thought that this word was conferred upon members of the sect who wore wool raiment as did many of the Christian saints and prophets.
The first Islamic mysticism was considerably influenced by Christian practices. Its earlier formative years were at the time when Christian monastic life was common. Many individuals, under the influence of Christianity, felt impelled to renounce the world and live as a recluse or ascetic. The Sufis were quite aware of these practices, and it resulted in their pursuing a similar activity.
These early Sufis were marked by an “intense religious exaltation.” As they became more aware of the magnitude of the Divine Operation, they acquired an overwhelming consciousness of human frailty. In consequence, they developed a great fear of God. The more appropriate word would be “awe” of Him, although, of course, awe is also a kind of fear. The Sufis in their lives gave themselves over to “utter submission to His Will.”
Though there were monastic practices, there was no organized monastic life; that is, established monasteries at this early period. The Sufis were nomadic ascetics. They traveled individually and pursued their purpose of submission to the Will of God in accordance with their personal under-standing.
The Sufis were the heirs of the “Esoteric Teachings” of Mohammed. They were those who saw between the lines hidden or symbolic meanings which they took as their guide. They differed from the average devout Moslems in that they did not accept literally the Koran, the sacred book of the Moslems.
Conflict, as in Christianity, soon arose among the Moslems as to what constituted the spiritual life, or, in other words, what were the true practices necessary for spiritual attainment. This conflict centered in and around the old city of Basra. The Sufis at this time emphasized the ascetic life. To them, spirituality signified “inner feeling.” It was a state of consciousness that was felt and had no objective counterpart.
We see here the beginning of Sufi Mysticism. The mystical experience is an intimate one. It is personal. It is a change of consciousness. It does not consist of mass or group participation in rites, unless such will produce that “inner feeling.”
The Syrian Moslems, however, were devoted to the external form of religion. To the Syrians, the good Moslem was one who conformed to certain dress, adhered to fasts, and went through rituals and prayers whether he knew their esoteric meaning or not.
To the Sufi ascetic, this inner feeling was a kind of humility, a humbleness, in which the individual sought to suppress all desires and feel joy in what he conceived to be Divine simplicity.
This led even to the renouncing of the desire to undergo privations, such as fasts and other self-denials. In fact, the suppression of desires on the part of the ascetic reached such proportions that it almost resulted in a doctrine of indifference to any religious formality.
This ascetic period was followed by “speculation and pantheistic tendencies.” The speculation was undoubtedly the attempt to conceive God in a different, and yet, a more intimate way. This finally blossomed into the beginnings of mystical pantheism.
Pantheism, in general, is the conception of God’s dwelling in all things. It does not conceive the thing itself as God. Rather, it conceives that the Mind of God, as a Cosmic order, reaches down into all things and is the creative force of all reality.
From the pantheistic point of view, God is not a Creator that stands apart from what he has brought forth, like the potter, separate from the vases which he has made. Rather, all things are a manifestation of God.
The deity is infused into everything. No collection of things themselves is God nor is any single thing God. Therefore, no single thing or collection can be worshipped as Divine.
God is infinite, He is all that is, and yet, more than the sum of whatever is. Thus, mystically, the closest point of contact of the human consciousness with God is within man, for God, we repeat, is in all things.
This pantheistic tendency leading to the pure mysticism of the Sufis is revealed in this phrase of the Koran: “wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.”
We must mention the eclectic nature of Sufi mysticism; they were influenced by the earlier Neo-Platonic teachings and the writings of the early Christian fathers, including Gnosticism.
The older Sufis “sought to bring every action, thought, and word into harmony with the Divine Will.” In other words, what was desired was to actualize God – to remove Him from the intellectual realm and make of Him the supreme pleasure and enlightenment which is an ecstasy. (Certainly, all those who have ever experienced Cosmic Consciousness, or attunement with the Cosmic, regardless of its brevity, can vouch that it is ecstasy.)
These older Sufis likewise sought to break down the barrier between Allah and His creatures. They disliked the dualism of God on the one hand and the world on the other. They preferred, as we have said, to transform Allah into one real Being existing in all things – a God that is revealed within the mystic.
When we come to make a study of the Sufi teachings, we are immediately confronted with the fact that there is no uniform body of doctrines with direct practical application. As stated previously, each Sufi, as a true mystic, though studying of other mystical systems, has been governed by a personal interpretation of his mystical experiences. Only in a complete analysis of such writings, all phrased somewhat differently, do we find the familiar view of pantheistic and psychological aspects of mysticism.
To the Sufi, the mystical path has no fixed or uniform character. We see, for example, asceticism, self-discipline, various suggested states of attainment, repentance, and conversion. All the elements are included in the teachings expounded by each great Sufic or Islamic mystic, but their explanations vary. In making their explanations – in exhorting men to aspire to Illumination – the early Sufis drew from the New Testament parables and sayings of Jesus. Nevertheless, fundamentally the Sufi teachings, we repeat, are alike.
The fundamental precepts may be set forth thus:
- God is accepted as One Reality.
- Man is one of the manifestations of God, or the One Reality.
- Man’s higher nature is a direct emanation from the Divine. This is contra-distinction to man’s physical being which, though also of God, is of a lower manifestation than that of the Soul.
- The human mind is a bit of the Universal Reason. In other words, the human mind is held not to be wholly the consequence of the human organism. It is a portion of the Universal Mind which has descended into man. This is similar to the Greek philosophical notion that mind in man, the reason, is of Divine origin.
- Human love is a Divine gift – the smaller gift from the Greater. All human love is a varying manifestation of the Greater Divine passion.
- Man’s knowledge of God is an Illumination from above.
It is significant that #6 above implied that man’s knowledge of God is not intellectual. It is not merely an abstraction or rationalization, but a positive contact directly with God through SELF. When one is Illumined as a result of such Divine contact, he then knows God – such knowledge not being possible without the mystical experience of union.