What is Sufism? Part 1: Introduction

by Navid Zaidi

The phenomenon of Sufism and the spiritual life in Islam is such a broad topic that nobody can venture to describe it fully.

Each of the blind men in Rumi’s famous story, when asked to touch an elephant, described it according to the part of elephant’s body his hands had touched: to one the elephant appeared like a throne, to another like a fan, to another like a water pipe, and to yet another like a pillar. But no one was able to imagine what the whole elephant would look like. Such is the case with Sufism, the generally accepted name for Islamic mysticism.

To approach its meaning we have to ask first what ‘mysticism’ means. Mysticism contains something mysterious, not to be reached by ordinary means or by intellectual effort. The root common to the words ‘mystic’ and ‘mystery’ is the Greek myein  meaning ‘to close the eyes.’

Mysticism has been called ‘the great spiritual current which flows through all religions.’ In its widest sense it may be defined as the consciousness of the One Reality; we can call it Wisdom, Light, Love, or Nothing.

What does the term Sufi mean? The generally accepted view is that the word is derived from the Arabic word ‘suf’ which means ‘wool.’ The Sufi mystics used to wear a coarse cloak woven out of wool hence they were called Sufis. Another explanation is that it comes from the term ashaab e suffa or ‘the people of the bench:’ the Companions of the Prophet of Islam who were poor and used to gather around the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Another source is the word ‘safa’ which means ‘to cleanse (the soul).’ Lastly, some believe it is derived from the Greek sophia (wisdom).

The basic tenet of Sufi philosophy is the realization of God through mystic experience in which senses and intellect, in the physiological sense, hardly play any part. Consequently, the emphasis of Sufism is on experience rather than theory. Through the spiritual experience the Sufi eliminates the sense of ego that is the major stumbling block in God-realization.

Sufis are opposed to the dogma of religion, so the term Sufi has also come to be used for freethinkers. They see God pervading everywhere and in all beings. So they have also been called pantheists. They see the One, all-pervading, everlasting Reality hidden behind the ever-changing appearance of this world. Man can achieve this transcendental state beyond time and space through mystic realization.

Multiple aims of Sufism are to raise man from the gross to subtle, from many to One, from change to permanence, from partial to complete and from ever-recurring suffering to never-ending bliss.

A major principle of spirituality is that the mind and the senses are only instruments of the soul. Although the soul is activated in this world through these instruments, yet it is quite apart and independent of them. The existence of the soul is neither dependent on body, mind and senses, nor can its original nature be changed by them. The soul possesses all the attributes of God. By association with mind and matter all of its native qualities have been suppressed. By removing the curtains of mind and matter the soul can regain its lost splendor. All its divine qualities can once again come to surface.

The Sufis remind the soul of its divine origin. By descending to the gross material world and by association with body, mind, and senses it has been deluded into believing that it is itself material, nothing more than the physical body, mind, and senses. The Sufis remind the soul that it is eternal, immortal, self-luminous and as blissful as God Himself.

The Sufis exhort the soul to leave the company of body, mind and senses and recognize its primeval form. Says Bulleh Shah:

Oh Bullah, take care and recognize yourself,
You are immortal; why do you cling to the body?
You are everlasting bliss,
You are resplendent light,
You are the form of bliss and unceasing consciousness.

All distinctions among human beings are based on contingent qualities that are not essential or necessary. The religion to which one belongs, the parents one is born to, the place of one’s birth could all have been different. So they cannot constitute the essence of man. So what really is man? Answers Bulleh Shah:

I take myself to be the First and the Last
I do not recognize aught except the One.

The reality of man is that which has neither beginning nor end. It is timeless and this entity is the soul. It can be neither body, nor mind, nor senses. And the essence of the soul is the same as God. So the reality of man is divine. He is God in essence.

No doubt the soul comes to the physical world in the garb of a human being. It comes from high spiritual regions and from the Ultimate Reality. It has the capacity to rise to those heights from which it has descended, and regain its lost freedom.

To attain this high position one should concentrate on meditation of the Lord. The human body is an exclusive center of experience and it is incumbent upon us to make full use of this gift.

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