In reviewing Idries Shah's The Sufis, recently republished in both the West and the Middle East, Jason Webster offers a helpful definition of Sufism. Before sharing this definition I'd first like to share a little about my own interest in the mystic path known as the Sufi Way.
Let me start by acknowledging that for many people Sufism is viewed as the "mystical branch of Islam." Yet although it's true that Sufism has undoubtedly achieved a beautiful, unique, and profound flowering within Islam, its foundational truths have been embodied by women and men from the earliest days of humanity, and it exists today both within and beyond Islam. As expressed in the cultural milieu of Islam, Sufism is known as "classical Sufism," while outside this milieu the term "universal Sufism" is often used.
Rumi interpreter Coleman Barks, who notes that the Sufi Way is not religious but instead the "origin and longing inside religiousness." (1) (For a scholarly exploration of the idea of Christianity beginning as a form of what later is called Sufism, click here.) Kabir Helminski also writes of how Sufism is about "realizing the current of love that runs throughout all life, the unity behind forms." (2)
Accordingly, Sufism is not a doctrine or a belief system. Rather, it is a tradition of enlightenment, a way of life that emphasizes love as the way to an ever-expanding realization of ourselves and our relationship with the Divine Presence. This transforming and liberating realization takes place within and through our individual and communal journeys and leads us to recognize and celebrate God within all aspects of creation. The mystic, after all, is open to the sacred in all things, and Sufism, as Doris Lessing once wrote, "is always, has ever been, evolutionary in spirit and action." (3)
For Lessing, dogma, doctrine and liturgy distort the inner aspect of religion into a "sociological straightjacket." Mysticism, she notes, "is given a bad name [by the guardians of doctrinal orthodoxy] because 'mystics' in all societies usually oppose, ignore, evade the narrow dogmas. And they do this because they are engaged in reclaiming the life beneath the straitjacket." (4)
the Work (5), understood as an approach to Spirit involving a total commitment and way of life. Helminski helpfully distinguishes between the Work, on the one hand, and religion or philosophy, on the other.
The religiously inclined person may ask, "What should I believe?"; the philosophical person might ask, "What is truth?"; but the one who asks, "How shall I find God, how shall I experience Spirit, how shall I become the Truth?" is asking the questions of the Work. What is sought is sought through experience, through a process of maturing, through using more and more of our faculties, through a gradual change of perception. (6)
As a tradition of enlightenment, Sufism understands "tradition" in a vital and dynamic sense. "Its expression must not remain limited to the religious and cultural forms of the past," writes Helminski. "The truth of Sufism requires reformulation and fresh expression in every age." (7)
call to awaken and its emphasis on transformation. Its openness to the Divine within all aspects of creation and thus its universality (or catholicity, in the truest sense of the word) means that it has a celebratory perspective on loving sexual relationships that's tragically lacking in many institutional religions. I also appreciate the music and architecture of the Arabic world in which Sufism has long flourished, and, of course, Sufism's emphasis on dance as a potentially sacred expression greatly resonates with me. About this last characteristic, Helminski writes:
[S]acred dances of all kinds, especially the whirling of the Mevlevi Sufis and the movements taught by Gurdjieff . . . all consciously respect, integrate, and develop the body. All of these sacred means use the body as a medium for the expression of the creative powers of the soul. Furthermore, they produce an integration of all the faculties; not only the physical, but the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual. [These disciplines] teach a presence of mind through balance and alertness. . . . [They] train the consciousness as much as the body. (8)
About Sufi dancing, Helminski notes the following.
whirling of the Mevlevis requires physical precision and groundedness. The left foot never leaves the ground; the right foot repeats an exacting movement that allows the turner to move with extraordinary grace, neither wobbling nor bobbing up and down. While seeing the physical world turn around his [or her] own still axis, the semazen [worshiping dancer] is inwardly repeating the name of God with each revolution. The arms are extended, an expression of longing and submission – the right palm up receiving spiritual energy, the left palm down bestowing that energy to the world. The semazen becomes a transformer of cosmic energies through conscious intention, love, and the electrodynamic effect of the human nervous system revolving in relation to the earth's magnetic field. (9)
I also appreciate what Mary Blye Howe writes about Sufi dancing in her beautiful and insightful book, Sitting with Sufis: A Christian Experience of Learning Sufism.
These sacred movements don't bring God into our presence. God is always present. But creating an atmosphere in a room and in our hearts through symbolic and meaningful movements of our bodies helps bring God into our awareness. We close our eyes and search for God within. We dance with another, looking into their eyes, and we see God in another human being. Lifting our hands toward the heavens, then bringing them back to our hearts, we sense God's spirit within and without. As we turn in place, we feel the eternal movement of God through the mysterious yet perfect movement of the universe. (10)
Speaking of awareness, I've come to the realization that for any "enlightenment tradition" to be authentic, it must be what theologian Albert Nolan calls a "mystico-prophetic tradition." I agree wholeheartedly with Nolan when he writes:
Any idea that one [can] be a prophet calling for justice and social change without some experience of union with God [is] unthinkable. Equally unthinkable [is] any idea that one [can] be a perfectly good mystic without becoming critically outspoken about the injustices of one's time. (11)
Above: Mystic and prophet: the Taksim Square whirling dervish, photographed during last summer's anti-government protests in Istanbul.
For Nolan, Jesus was "par excellence a representative of the mystico-prophetic tradition." In his book Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, Nolan writes:
Anyone who wishes to take Jesus seriously would have to be prepared to become a prophet and a mystic. . . . [W]e can all become courageous enough to speak out like prophets. . . We can also become mystics. In fact . . . prophesy and mysticism go together. Mystical union with God is not an experience reserved for some very special and privileged people. It is true that everybody does not have the same opportunities for exploring such a possibility. But Jesus did not think that he alone could experience intimacy with God as his abba. God was the abba and Father of all: "My Father and your Father" (Jn 20:17); "Our Father" (Mt 6:9). We can all experience some measure of intimacy with God. . . . According to the frequently quoted prediction of the great twentieth-century theologian, Karl Rahner, "the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all." (12)
And mystics are not "fanatics," which is a perfect segue into (finally) sharing what I set out to share with this post: an excerpt from Jason Webster's Guardian review of The Sufis by Idries Shah.
Classical Sufis in the Islamic world include Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Fariduddin Attar – whose stories were later used by Chaucer – and the Spaniard Avërroes, the “great commentator” on Aristotle. And many of their ideas passed to Europe through contacts between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily and the Iberian peninsula. From the outset, Sufism has been concerned with building bridges, not least between communities whose contact can be of mutual benefit.
. . . There could not be a more important time for Sufi ideas to be reintroduced. With its concentration, among other things, on awareness and psychological balance – “mindfulness”, if you like – Sufism is a natural antidote to fanaticism. . . . Sufism does not claim to present the panaceas or comforting worldviews that so many ideologies, religious or political, peddle. Yet the complex and moderate thinking it does provide may be precisely what is needed right now. (13)
Above: A Sufi dancer. (Photographer unknown)
1. Barks, C. Rumi: The Book of Love – Poems of Ecstasy and Longing. Harper San Francisco, 2003.
2. Helminski, Kabir Edmund. Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. Tarcher Putnam Books, 1992, p. 174.
3-4. Lessing, Doris. From the preface of Seeker After Truth: A Handbook by Indris Shah.
5. Helminski, Kabir Edmund. Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. Tarcher Putnam Books, 1992, p. 8.
6. Ibid., p. 9.
7. Ibid., p. 8.
8. Ibid., pp. 94-95
9. Ibid., p. 95
10. Blye Howe, Mary. Sitting with Sufis: A Christian Experience of Learning Sufism. Paraclete Press, 2005, p. 62.
11. Nolan, Albert. Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom. Orbis, 2006, p. 72.
12. Ibid., pp. 75-76.
13. Webster, Jason. "Sufism: "A Natural Antidote to Fanaticism," The Guardian, October 23, 2014.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• The Sufi Way
• In the Garden of Spirituality – Doris Lessing
• Doris Lessing on the Sufi Way
• Doris Lessing on the Challenge to Go Beyond Ideological Slogans
• Sufism: A Call to Awaken
• In the Garden of Spirituality – Hazrat Inayat Khan
• Sufism: A Living Twenty-First Century Tradition
• In the Garden of Spirituality – Kabir Helminski
• As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
• Clarity, Hope, and Courage
• "Joined at the Heart": Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism