The urge toward mysticism is inherent within every person, irrespective of his or her religion. This is the urge to experience a dimension beyond the material world, to know and return to a spiritual Essence. Some are endowed with it in quantity; others, only in a small amount. Generally, some people have a chance to develop and translate this urge into their daily lives, while others do not. Nevertheless, this tendency is present in every human being. Sufism (or tasawwuf) is but a natural response to this very ancient human urge.
What exactly is Sufism? Firstly, the message of Sufism addresses all people, and not just the followers of one religion. Every faith has its own Sufism. In every nation and community there have been Sufis, although they have taken different names and adopted varying practices.
The human being comprises not only a physical body, but another aspect, commonly referred to as “I” or “the self. Mystical experience activates the “I.” Like an electrical current, it runs through an individual, bringing forth untapped potentials. With the activation of self comes a certain degree of consciousness and insight. A person starts to sense that his or her “I” reflects another “I” – the “I” of a Supreme Being. He or she becomes conscious of God acting in and through creation.
Many people attain this level of awareness at some point in their lives. An encounter, event, or realization opens them to a reality greater than themselves. For most, this level of awakening is enough. But others desire something more: to contact God, to see the Divine, to experience Truth. Being a mere part is insufficient; they long to annihilate themselves in the Whole, the Eternal. They want their faith to spring forth spontaneously and continuously, like water rushing from a fountain. They yearn to realize in a personal way that God is as near as your jugular vein.
How can this yearning be fulfilled? God is the Sublime Being; humans are gross in comparison. Their senses can hear, touch, see, taste, and smell material things, but the Supreme Being eludes detection by these means. How can a particle contact the sun? How can a part become the whole? Human beings from the beginning of time have tried to resolve this dilemma.
The Teachings of Sufism
According to Sufi teachings, the path to experiencing the Divine Presence starts within. It is said that one who realizes oneself realizes the Lord. God is present. But individuals cannot see the Almighty because of curtains of ignorance veil their eyes and rust encases their hearts. The average person is ego-centered. Only after he or she has polished the heart and purified the self will the curtains be lifted. And then the rust fall away, and the eyes become able to see God.
Through years of effort, Sufi masters developed a scientific approach to achieving such refinement. They discovered that in addition to the mind, human beings have other centers of consciousness. These serve as inner faculties for attaining knowledge. Foremost among these centers is the heart. With diligent practice, teachers of Sufism perfected techniques that activate the heart, cultivating profound intuition and realization.
The polished heart becomes a mirror that catches the light of truth and reflects it in one’s consciousness. With this light dawns the understanding that beyond material phenomena, there exists a greater Beingness; and that everything in the universe is contained in and reflects this Beingness. Including one’s own inner self.
Discovering and fulfilling the Divine potential ultimately results in unflinching faith and certainty of truth. One then submits completely to the Almighty, as a drop of rain submits to the ocean. One wills only in accordance with the will of God; all acts are performed for God’s sake alone.
Through selfless obedience, the seeker comes to recognize the Presence of the Divine in each event and circumstance. Consciousness of God pervades his or her every moment. He or she becomes a sincere servant of the Almighty. In fact, Sufism is nothing but inward and outward sincerity.
Sufism does not focus only on the purification of the individual. While striving for selflessness, the salik (spiritual traveler) also devotes his or her insights to improving the social and cultural condition of the community, the nation, and humanity as a whole. This commitment to service makes Sufism a dynamic, transformative force on all levels, from personal to global.
Historically, people steeped in the academic study of religion have dismissed Sufism as a speculative pursuit. Such people claim that Sufism is fueled by its practitioners’ imaginations rather than by real insight. However more recently, researchers in the fields science and quantum physics are drawing conclusions that parallel the premises of Sufism. For example, many scientists now take into account the fundamental inter-relatedness of all phenomena.
Whether or not they speak in terms of God, their insights echo the mystics’ age-old awareness of Divine Unity. Building from points of common understanding, teachers and students of Sufism are engaging with scientists in dialogue. Moreover they are working to bridge the gaps between them and thereby help more individuals recognize the benefits of a spiritual view of life.
Like many other disciplines, Sufism has come under the influence of people who lack proper training. Deteriorated forms of Sufism have emerged over time. Explaining what Sufism is, therefore requires one to give attention to what it is not. Sufism is not primarily concerned with power or the development of the intellect. It does not rely on a mixture of cultural techniques and preoccupation with the ego. It is not necessarily a quest for greater personal effectiveness, healing abilities, psychic powers, or the like.
Sufism is not designed to provide a good living for teachers or heads of organizations. Nor does it deliberately keep students in a state of mystification. Westerners – always eager to synthesize themselves – may embrace Sufism as a teaching designed to unite all religions and creeds. This, too, misrepresents its focus. Certainly the development of human beings’ spiritual potential can diminish intolerance, fanaticism, prejudice, and conflict. But these are the secondary results of the Sufi path, not goals.
While diluted derivatives abound, by the grace of the Almighty the essence of Sufism endures. It also remains relevant in the post-modern age. Undoubtedly, it offers principles that we can use as bases for our intentions and actions with others. The Sufi path promotes balance between the outer life and inner spiritual practices. Moreover, this is a balance that is becoming all the more important as the complexity of life increases.
Other forms of education focus on the mind or the body, on developing skills, professional qualifications, or character. Sufism educates the heart. By developing the heart’s infinite capacity to plumb the depths of consciousness, aspirants gain deep insights. These insights guide their lives and serve as vehicles for understanding self and God. Only the awakened heart can attain God-consciousness; the mind cannot. Those who pursue the Sufi path discover the secrets of awakening the heart.
They realize and live the knowledge revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by who said, “The vessels of your Lord are the hearts of His righteous slaves, and the most beloved to Him are the softest and most tender ones.” (al-Tabarani)