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What Is Sufism

Sufism is an ancient tradition of spiritual development, widespread at present.

Sufism originated inside Islam. Some Sufi teachers-sheikhs say, however, that Sufism cannot be limited to a particular religion, historical period, society, or language. They call Sufism “the pure essence of all religions” and believe that Sufism existed always: it is only its outer appearance that changes according to the contemporary cultural-historical environment.

The Sufis, who often call themselves “people of true beingness”, from age to age bring to the world together with their teachings their art, which reflects their perception of the beautiful. The Sufi symbolism, images, and themes are found in a significant part of oriental folklore, literature, especially poetry. Such is almost all Persian-Iranian classic poetry, which is recognized throughout the world. Widely known are the names of Sufi poets: Sanai, Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Nezami. One can say the same, though to a smaller degree, about the Arab and Turkic literature, poetry, folklore.

What is Sufism?

The root Sufi means “pure”. It corresponds to the essence of the Sufi teachings and the spiritual appearance of its best representatives. The true masters of Sufism, the true Sufis are indeed pure from the dogmatism and fanaticism, are free from confessional and national prejudices. A strong aspiration to the ethical purity and impeccability, peculiar to the Sufis, contributed to their receiving another name in the Arab world — Knights of Purity (Sahiba-i-Safa).

Thanks to large pliancy and openness to outer influence, Sufism at present is not a uniform system. Its different trends, directions, schools, groups differ from one another by the methodological aspects they emphasize, by the practical methods they prefer. Among Sufis, there are well-known orders with ancient traditions and also 12 main (“parental”) brotherhoods. In addition, there are many other structures in Sufism: smaller brotherhoods, communities, centers, circles.

Fundamentals of the Sufi Teachings

Let us outline the fundamentals of the Sufi teachings:

— Sufism holds a belief that the universe consists of 7 “planes of existence”. This concerns multidimensionality of space.

— The subtlest dimension, which the Sufis call Zat, is the Abode of God in the aspect of the Creator. The Creator and the whole diversity of His Creation (Sifat, in Sufi terms) compose the Absolute. The Creator pervades the entire Creation with His Love.

— The multidimensional human organism, which is similar in its structure to the multidimensional structure of the Absolute, can reveal in itself more subtle forms of beingness. One realizes this by cognizing and perfecting oneself.

Thus only by knowing their true essence, people can achieve the direct perception of God and union with Him. This is expressed very laconically in the hadith of Sunna which reads: “He who cognizes himself cognizes God”. On the final stages of such cognition, the individual human consciousness merges with the Divine Consciousness. This final goal is described in the Sufi tradition as the highest state of consciousness Baqi bi-Allah (Eternity in God). Hindu and Buddhist synonyms of this term are Kaivalya, Mahanirvana, Moksha.

The foundation of Sufism is love (mahabba, hubb). The Sufis even say of their teachings as of “hymn to the Divine Love” and call it tassawuri — love-vision. Love is considered in Sufism as the power which strengthens one’s feeling of being contained in God. This process results in understanding that in the world there is nothing but God, Who is the Lover and the Beloved at the same time.

One of the tenets of Sufism is “Ishq Allah Mabud Allah” (“God is Lover and the Beloved”).

A truly loving Sufi gradually submerges, sinks, and becomes dissolved in the Creator — in his or her Beloved.

The principle of regarding God as the Beloved originated from the Sufi direct experience. The Sufis describe this in the following way. When man traverses a certain part of the Path of Love, God begins to help him more actively by drawing him to His Abode. And then man begins to feel more intensely God’s Divine Love.

Let us see how such love, leading man to God, develops according to the views of Jalaluddin Rumi.

This happens:

1) through the development of the emotional, cordial love for all the beautiful and harmonious in the world;

2) through active, sacrificial love-service to people;

3) and then — through extending this love to all manifestations of the world without discriminating between them; the Sufis say: “If you make a distinction between things originating from God — you are not man of spiritual Path. If you think that a diamond can ennoble you and a stone lowers you, then God is not with you”;

4) such developed love for all elements of the Creation is redirected then to the Creator — and man begins to see that, according to Rumi, “the Beloved is present in everything”.

Obviously, this concept of love is identical to the one described in the Bhagavad Gita and the New Testament: it has the same milestones and accents. The true love is regarded in Sufism in the same way as in the best spiritual schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity — as the only power capable of bringing man to God.

Sufi Attitude toward Worldly Activity

Quite often Sufi sheikhs live in the world being occupied with common worldly activity. They can operate a shop, workshop, smithy, can compose music, write books, etc. The Sufis believe that one does not need seclusion to go to God. They say that the worldly activity by itself does not separate you from God if you are not attached to its fruits and if you remember about Him. Therefore, on all steps of the spiritual ascent, man may be involved into social life. Moreover, according to Sufism, it is social life that provides one with the possibilities for self-development. If every life situation is considered as educational, then one can live side by side with the most awful and despising people. One can be subjected to the most coarse influence — and do not suffer from it; on the contrary, one can be joyful and calm, and perfect oneself through these social contacts given by God.

Apprenticeship in Sufism

As for the students-murids, Sufi sheikhs say that not anyone wanting to become a Sufi can become it, not everyone can comprehend the Sufi teachings. The Sufis say that one cannot be taught anything: man can be only shown the way, but he has to walk it himself. Therefore, if an aspirant is not capable of using the teachings for his or her spiritual development, the education is meaningless: the teachings will pass through such a student as water passes through sand.

The aspirant’s capability of comprehending the teachings is determined by the sheikh. For this purpose sheikhs often use provocative methods. They put aspirants into various situations, involve them into innocent talks — with the purpose of determining their level of development. If aspirants look promising, then sheikh watching them for some time, determines their individual features and to what extent they can comprehend the teachings. And then, according to this, every murid is given certain tasks for the whole period of learning and corresponding parts of the teachings.

After determining specific features of the student’s development, the sheik can send him or her to other orders, brotherhoods, educational centers. The neophyte moves from sheikh to sheikh and gradually comprehends and masters the program. After long and comprehensive learning, the murid returns to his or her first sheikh. And then the sheik gives the murid “final polishing” and so-called ijaza (permission) to continue the sheik’s tradition and preach the teachings.

The sphere of the Sufi teachings includes both esoteric and exoteric sides. That is, murids develop not only ethically, intellectually, and psycho-energetically: they also master the methods, the secrets of their sheikh’s craft or art. Later this helps them in life.

* * *

The process of Sufi teaching can be subdivided into several stages.

The initial stage of the spiritual practice — sharia (law) — concerns strict obedience to all religious precepts. Initial learning of sharia is an obligatory condition for entering on the path of spiritual development.

The esoteric learning begins on the next stage — tariqa (path, way). Mastering the tariqa is related to mastering a series of steps-maqams.

In the ethical aspect, maqams imply fundamental reassess of one’s values. They imply finding one’s own vices and repentance (tauba), abstaining from the forbidden (zuhd), strict distinction between the allowed and non-allowed (wara), refusal of non-spiritual attachments and desires (faqr). Murids learn patience (sabr), “swallowing something bitter without showing distaste”.

Constant remembrance about death, about its inevitability leads murids to reassessing many things. In particular, murids develop a careful attitude to the time which they have on the Earth. Reflections on death are an efficient means of fighting unwanted attachments and habits. Al-Ghazali said: “If you like something of the world and an attachment is born in you — recall about death”.

On the stage of tariqa, one performs intense intellectual work. Sheiks constantly suggest to their students new themes for reflection, talk with them about the fundamentals of the teachings. Murids become acquainted with various literary sources, which present many parables, educational stories, etc.

As the murid goes through all steps of this stage, he or she develops a strong desire to attain the unity with the Creator and enters the state of rida. The Sufis define rida as “unruffled attitude toward one’s predestination”, that is the state of serenity, calm in respect to what is happening.

They who successfully passed maqams of tariqa receive the possibility to go further the path of marefat — meditative cognition of God. On this stage, further ethical “polishing” of the student takes place; student’s love (in its different aspects), wisdom, and power are perfected. The Sufi who traversed this stage really cognizes the multidimensionality of space, “illusiveness” of the values of material life, receives living experience of communion with God. As arif (he who has cognized) such a person receives initiation into sheikhs.

Some arifs managed to reach the forth stage — haqiqat (haqq means truth), on which one finally masters the true beingness. It brings the arif to the full mergence of the individual consciousness with the Goal of his or her aspirations — with the Creator.

Spiritual work on these stages corresponds to the one performed on the stages of buddhi yoga.

See also:

Sufi Practices


Recommended literature:


The Prophet

by Kahlil Gibran

Sufi Teachings

by Hazrat Inayat Khan
The Beauty of Pure Islam

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