By Eric Geoffroy
10 April, 2018
Pilgrims come to Istanbul from all over
the world to commemorate Rumi's death [Getty]
There are three dimensions to the religion
of Islam: The law, theology and spirituality. Sufism is defined as that third
one, the inward dimension of Islam.
Sufis consider this dimension an aspect of
the eternal and universal wisdom that has existed since Adam, and has been
incarnated in the body of the Islamic religion, born in Arabia in the seventh
Uncertainty remains as to the etymology of
the word, which appeared towards the end of the second century of the Hegira.
"Sufi" is the stem from which the Arabic word tasawwuf is formed,
which literally means "the adoption of the Sufi values and rites" and
was translated into English by the word "Sufism".
In the Quran (57:3), God is presented as
being both the Outward and the Inward, the Visible and the Hidden; and for the
Sufis, creation is in the image of God.
And so, underneath the world of
appearances, shapes, dogma and law, there exist an inward reality (Haqiqa)
which is its true foundation and gives it meaning. This reality is what the
Sufi tends to perceive, starting from the outward and peripheral norm, the
Sharia, for a journey across the road of initiation (Tariqa) which connects
appearance to essence - the shell to the core. This introspective process is
outlined in the Quran (51:20):
"On earth are Signs for those whose
Faith is certain. And also in yourselves. Will you not then see?"
'Only Allah Is'
Sufis have given several goals to their
discipline. They all agree on the necessity of purifying the soul in order to
become transparent to God and acquire the "noble virtues" of the
For most Sufis, purification is a mere
tool: You must know Allah in order to adore Him more. But this is impossible to
achieve as long as the ego stands between Him and human consciousness: by
"annihilating in Allah" (al-fana¯') the initiate comes to the
conclusion that only He is.
Indeed, doesn't the Islamic profession of
faith declare that "There is no God but Allah"? For the Sufis, this
means that "Only Allah is", because what is created, what is
contingent must disappear before what is Absolute.
The follower, immersed in the Presence, can
see nothing but Allah, but when he comes back amongst men, he must
"subsist" in Allah, meaning he must see Allah in all beings, in all
manifestations, which is much more difficult…
Hence, Sufis do not reject the world.
"Human beings were not created for you to see them but for you to see the
Lord in them", Sufis say. The Quran repeatedly encourages human beings to
decipher "signs" and get to know Allah by contemplating His manifestation.
A Culture in Contemporary Islam
Since the eighteenth century, the rise of
Wahhabism has imposed a tough, Bedouin Islam, supported by petrodollars and the
Different currents of the revivalist
Salafism have passed on this literalist and ideological vision into the 20th
century. Sufism however has kept influencing all aspects of Islamic culture.
This is why the great Muslim reformists of the end of the 19th century and of
the 20th century (Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Iqbal, Said
Noursi…) have never renounced their roots in Sufism as a spiritual discipline.
They merely criticised the sectarian shape it took when they thought it
alienated Muslim peoples.
The scathing attacks launched against
Sufism by Salafists and "modernists" seemed to have plunged it into
disgrace and up until the 1970s, a few Orientalists were still predicting its
But a renewal came about in the 1980s and
even more so in the 1990s, following the failures of several ideologies which
took over the Arab-Muslim world in the 20th century (nationalism, Marxism,
Islamism…) and the disappointment felt by those following the western way of
Despite the critical phase Sufism went
through, it held on to its roots in Islamic culture. In 1989, Syrian Sheikh Naqshbandi
Said Hawwa, who was also the leader of one the branches of the Muslim
Brotherhood, was able to claim that across the centuries, 90 percent of Muslims
had had a link with Sufism, one way or another.
There has also been a growing interest in
Sufism in the West and it has gained in strength in Islam-dominated countries,
where the situation is in fact rather contrasted.
In many countries, young people have been
joining Brotherhoods in large numbers, when only 20 years ago the average
members' age was markedly older.
Although it may seem the case, Sufism
actually has many devotees, and followers are estimated to number around 300
million out of a worldwide 1.6 billion Muslims, thus accounting for close to 19
percent of the Sunni branch of Islam.
This helps refute the incorrect idea that
the Muslim community has been submerged by waves of Islamists, Muslim Brothers,
Wahhabi-Salafis and so-called "jihadists". Though the sufis are
talked about much less often in the media.
The 'Divergence Principle'
"The colour of water is the colour of
its vessel": this is the allusive way the Great Sufi of Bagdad Abu'l Qasim
al-Junayd, who died in 911, attempted to explain that there exist many
different ways to reach Sufism.
One Sufi proverb indeed says that
"there are as many paths to God as there are children of Adam", and
each will make his way according to his own dispositions. In the 10th century,
Abu Nasr al-Sarraj explained this diversity with a phrase of the Prophet:
"Differences of opinions among savants
[Muslims] are a source of divine mercy" to the "inward savants";
the Sufis. But if each Sufi can only speak in accordance with the spiritual
level he has reached and depending on his experience of the instant, all can
profit from the exchange.
This call to pluralism shares in the
Islamic principle of "divergence"(Khilaf), mainly observed in
Islamic law. Far from desiring to suppress differences, the first authors of
Sufi textbooks (10th and 11th centuries) emphasised them because they found in
them a good illustration of the richness and subtlety of Sufis' experiences.
Consequently, Sufis may not agree on the terminology of their doctrine or even
on some theological points.
Different sensibilities have found
expression in the blossoming Islamic spirituality, among which stand are the
way of "renouncement" or "asceticism" (Zuhd) in
Syria and the way of the "blame" (Malama) Iran/Central Asia,
before Sufism (Tasawwuf) from Iraq became dominant and swallowed up the
So, the first mystics' experiences (ninth
and early 10th centuries ) display a broad range of spiritual temperaments, out
of which was born a typology still relevant today: Abu Yazid al-Bistami and
Mansur Al-Hallaj exemplify spiritual intoxication, Al-Junayd lucidity, Harith
Al- Muhasibi the delight of fate, Hakim Al-Tirmidhi sanctity, etc.
But even within mature Sufism, which from
then became the major expression of Sunni Islamic expression (11th and 12th
centuries) and even within the framework of "particular roads of
initiation" or Tariqa, the individual will maintain his autonomy,
the fundamental freedom which Sufism promotes, thus validating 15th century
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Zarraq's reflection that:
"Sufis will keep well as long as they
disagree. They can only agree by turning an eye to their mutual defects and no
one is without defects…"
At a time when humanity is faced with
serious challenges, and when confessional withdrawal no longer has its place,
will Islam follow the slow swaying motion from the political to the mystical as
Andre Malraux foretold?
Far from being a passing fad, the current
quest for spirituality corresponds to a basic need for many of us. In this
respect, Sufism contributes to an opening of Muslims' field of vision, by
encouraging inter-religious exchanges and a mixing of cultures.
Eric Geoffroy is a French philosopher, Islamologist, writer and scholar
in Sufi studies, who teaches at the University of Strasbourg.
Opinions expressed in this article
remain those of the author