By Kabir Helminski
August 3, 2018
Islam began as
something strange, and so it will become again one day, and blessed are the
In a somewhat random conversation I had
recently a woman said to me, “You know, my daughter and the younger generation
get their spirituality mostly from Instagram.” Now, several months later
Threshold Society has ramped up an Instagram account. A quick search for Rumi
on Instagram yields a range of quotes from a few interesting paraphrases, to
some bland clichés and self help advice, and soon to more Beyoncé than you ever
wanted to see… Nevertheless, following the principle of “by any means
possible,” we’ve started to make our own contribution. We don’t think that the
presence of Rumi in the “spiritual marketplace” is a bad thing, and the icon of
the whirling dervish which regularly appears in the most unlikely times and
places does no harm and may even plant seeds in the collective soul of
Sufism is based on certain premises that
are unfamiliar, if not foreign, to our contemporary environment in which
transcendent realities have been relegated so far to the background of life
that they are effectively ignored:
The first of these is the idea that the
soul itself needs to be educated and trained. The soul needs knowledge and
practice in the areas such as self-awareness, attention, will, relationship,
service, and worship. In the modern world we don’t reflect much on the soul,
let alone on its development.
The second important principle of Sufism is
that this education and training is best conducted together with others—not
just for the sake of convenience, but because of the opportunities to know
ourselves through relationship, and because of the quality of energy that is
generated and shared in a group. We read the occasional book on spirituality
and form our own inner convictions, but rarely commit to the ongoing process of
spiritual education and transformation. We may be willing to spend years and
tens of thousands of dollars to receive professional training, and yet resist
the idea of taking time for a weekend retreat, much less a years long
commitment to weekly Dhikrs (meditative sessions) and Sohbat (spiritual
The third principle is that there are
people who have experience and knowledge in this area, and who may be
authorized through a spiritual lineage to provide wisdom, guidance, and
inspiration. We resist the idea of such a relationship because relationships
demand something of us: honesty, commitment, and possibly change. Even if we
consider ourselves on a spiritual path, we would rather commit to a technique,
such as meditation, which preserves our imagined autonomy and freedom, rather than
to a relationship and a spiritual family and the commitment that implies.
Of course, there are many good reasons why
we should be sceptical about people who set themselves up as spiritual teachers
and groups that proselytize or seek to enlist members. The real spiritual paths
never seek members merely to increase their numbers, but they may seek to offer
knowledge to the societies in which they exist. In fact it has been a conscious
principle that the path exists to serve those who consciously choose it,
although in more traditional societies the purpose of the Tariqa, or
path, was more commonly known and understood.
Because spiritual transformation is not a
form of conditioning, it cannot be accomplished only through the sharing of
information and techniques. It is more mysterious, more creative, more
unpredictable. No matter what kind of training program is devised, it can never
guarantee that its practitioners will have attained freedom from the self,
selfless love of other human beings, and sincere love of God. And yet this is
what Sufi education aims at.
Sufism, once the heart and soul of Islamic
civilization, has been pushed to the margins, reduced to a mere intellectual
preference or curiosity in Europe and America, associated with cultism and backwardness
in South Asia, considered a dangerous heresy in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a
merely tolerated minority in other Muslim majority nations. But Sufism, as a
comprehensive system focused on body, mind, heart, and soul, offers a unique
path forward for humanity at a time when our very humanness is challenged.
Nevertheless, we must face the fact that
there are very few examples in today’s world of Sufism as a viable living
tradition — over the last century it has faced a withering assault: the traumas
of the postcolonial world, the weakening of traditional ways of life,
fundamentalist propaganda, global consumer culture, and more.
There is also the question of Sufism’s
relation to religion in general, and Islam in particular. It has been said that
Muslims avoid approaching Sufism because they fear it will lead them away from
Islam. Non-Muslims, on the other hand, may be suspicious of Sufism out of a
fear it will lead them toward Islam!
Furthermore, the Sufi who has attained some
spiritual maturity may appear as not a “true Muslim” to some and as “too
Muslim” to others. The truth is that the real Sufi belongs to all of humanity.
His or her wish is to see any individual attain the highest level of human
completion that is possible for them.
The Sufi teacher looks to the spiritual
realization of human beings, more than to any nominal adherence to belief. If
the Sufi loves the heritage of classical Sufism, it is because of the richness
the tradition offers, because of the inspiration, purity, and practicality of
Those who are uneasy about the relationship
of Sufism to Islam are usually people who are relatively uninformed about what
traditional Islam represents, including those who have been disappointed by the
lack of spirituality in many of today’s mainstream Islamic settings.
Non-Muslims need to look beyond the
distorted image of Islam that is common in the West, while Muslims need to look
beyond the hardened shell of Islam that is too common today.
The humanness of Sufism, the degree of its
wholeness, its integration with ordinary life, its nobility, liberality, and
humility are almost inconceivable without the revelation of the Qur’an and the
personality of Muhammad. Rather than moralizing and threatening people with the
punishments of Hell and the rewards of Paradise, Sufism reaches toward these
qualities through a change of consciousness that transforms the very ego that
is so often the basis of human behaviour. The ego cannot fix itself; only a
state beyond the ego is effective in freeing us from the prison of our egoism,
and that is the state of conscious presence. Sufism is effective to the extent
that it understands that spiritual development is essentially a movement from a
more limited state of consciousness to a more comprehensive state of consciousness.
This movement through levels of
consciousness, however, is not merely a mental process; it is a movement guided
by embodied qualities of virtue and character, primarily sourced in the Hadith.
Various modern Sufi adaptations that distance themselves from Islam, perhaps
ignorant of classical Islamic Sufism, risk becoming fragments of a wholeness
that classical Sufism embodied, or even a caricature of it. In some cases the
spiritual search is reduced to the search for ecstasy; in others it is abstracted
to a dry epistemology. In still other cases, it becomes a kind of free-spirited
mystical sensuality; and in others, tinged with religious fanaticism.
But Sufism, at its best, is a path of
completion. It proceeds from the living example of human completion and leads
toward that completion. The simple and basic practices of Islam, when
understood as a spiritual training system, rather than a demand from a strict
and punishing deity, can lead to the restoration of our original and pure
face with purity toward the primordial religion (Li Dïni Hanïfä), (recognize)
the innate nature (fitrah) upon which God has made humankind; do not allow what
God has made to be corrupted. That is authentic religion, but most people do
not understand. [Surah ar-Rum 30:30]
Islamic civilization has an abundance of
human exemplars, most of them Sufis, who have been the living embodiment of
this Fitra, this innate pure nature. Each Insan al Kamil (perfected or
completed human being) brings forth the beauty and depth of true humanness.
Sufism is something natural and innately human. What is needed now, more than
ever, is a revival of the communities of grace that historically sustained this
process of human development. “…and blessed are the strangers.”
 Author’s translation.