When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found. Sufi saying
The image of Sufism as a mystical tradition at odds with orthodox Islam is pretty much a Western invention. What may be true is that Sufism began as a reaction to the sybaritic superficiality of Islam under the caliphs who succeeded Muhammad and his companions and who quickly became more concerned with military victories, amassing wealth, and living a life of great comfort and indulgence than in following the teachings of the Quran. As warriors spread the faith and were rewarded with piles of booty, the ruling elite of Islam grew ever more materialistic and its caliphs began to deviate from the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet.
But Sufis also opposed the increasing literalism of Islamic legal interpretations, challenging the rulers and religious guides of their countries to be true to the essential spirit of that law rather than the letter, always seeking the hidden spiritual significance of the most common ritual or prayer. They sought deeper connections to the mystical core of the other great religious traditions, and so tended to be more tolerant than unreflective Muslims. In most cases, however, they were unable to affect the power of the largely corrupt dynastic caliphs, and so they turned to inner contemplative practices and to elevating the spiritual life of the common people.
Still, the vast majority of Sufis remained first and foremost orthodox Muslims who performed the prayers and followed the sunna. Rather than avoiding the worship practices of orthodox Islam, Sufis must do more of these practices even more carefully than other Muslims — contrary to the teachings of some American Sufis. Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, a Sufi born in Iraq and educated in Europe and America, writes that the basic laws of Muslim worship, the Five Pillars, are “although necessary, not sufficient for most of the people who are sick in this vast hospital called the world.” According to Fadhlalla, Sufism “starts with following the Islamic Law, . . . with acquiring the knowledge of the outer practices in order to develop, evolve, and enliven the inner awakened state.”1
From the beginning, Sufis functioned as missionaries and spiritual masters, adding immeasurably to the richness of Islamic life, even though individual Sufis were sometimes accused of heresy in much the way great Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart were. Muslims have a tradition based in Quran that about four years before the death of the Prophet, he called together certain of his Companions under a tree to pledge themselves to him on a higher level than when they first joined Islam. Seeking this higher pitch of commitment, Sufis read and interpret the Quran on several levels, finding esoteric, hidden, or subtle truths where the text appears to speak of external, earthly matters. For instance, in the passage containing the above pledge, the Quran promises that those who pledged will receive the spoils of war, then adds, “God knows of other spoils which you have not yet taken, but which God encompasses” (48:21). Sufis interpret this as a reference to the supreme treasure of union with the Infinite.
The term Sufi has been authoritatively traced to the Arabic root suf (“wool”), reflecting the austere garments worn by some of the earliest Sufis, and probably applied by extension to Islamic mystics generally. Wool was traditionally the clothing both of the Prophet and of the Christian hermits whom the early Sufis encountered in the deserts of Syria, Arabia, and Egypt. However, the Christianity that was absorbed by Islam from the desert hermits and communities was less the orthodox religion of Rome than a mystical variant that had been influenced by both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Sufi prayer beads or rosaries were adapted from those used by Buddhist monks (and later borrowed by the Catholic Church), along with much of the meditative orientation of the Buddhists and the Christian Desert Fathers.
Sufism was one area in early Islam where women were granted full equality; a woman could become a master teacher, or shaykh (fem. shaykha), teaching in her own home or in a non-monastic convent. The most prominent woman Sufi was Rabia al-Adawiyya (d. 801), the slave-girl of Basra, whose teachings emphasized ecstatic, devotional love of God to the exclusion of all else, including marriage and the material world. Rabia’s insistence on worshiping God out of sheer love rather than because of any reward either on earth or in the afterlife, set a standard for all other Sufis. When asked why she often carried a torch and a container of water, she replied, “To burn up Paradise and to quench the fires of Hell.”
Although most Sufis consider themselves fully Muslim, their emphasis of the path of love by which the soul makes its journey to God has sometimes put them at odds with orthodox Islam. The search of the soul to return to its ultimate Source is often expressed, particularly in the poems of the Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-73), in the metaphor of a lover seeking out his beloved. Sufi poets also use the metaphor of wine in describing the soul’s intoxication with God, as when Rumi sings,
Before garden, vine or grape were in the world Our soul was drunken with immortal wine.
The Sufi shaykh, sometimes called a Murshid, is the individual’s spiritual guide on the journey of the soul. Through his intervention, the student in dreams or visions may meet the Pir, usually considered the original founder of a particular Sufi Order. Their conference takes place on the invisible, spiritual level, as do future meetings with the Prophet Muhammad himself and finally with God. The aim is marifa (“knowledge”), an intuitive experience of ultimate Reality reached by passing through various ecstatic states of purification, unification, and illumination. Students must give themselves up to the shaykh and trust him or her implicitly — the metaphor that was often used, although originally applied to one’s surrender to God, is that the student must be in the hands of the shaykh like a corpse in the hands of the person washing it, i.e., provide no resistance, no expression of separative ego.