After reading this chapter in No God but God, I understand why mostly when you hear of Islam, Sunnis and Shias are mentioned. It's too hard to define what Sufism is. Actually Reza Aslan says in this chapter that Sufism can only be described, not defined. They are the mystics of Islam - the ones seeking oneness with God - yet unlike most monastic orders they did not separate from society nor were they celibate. Islam is a communal religion which encourages marriage and having more children in order to increase the ummah.
As a sect which formed as "a reactionary movement against both the Imperial Islam of the Muslim Dynasties and the rigid formalism of Islam's 'orthodox' learned class, the Ulama," Sufism rejected the "rigidity of the Shariah and its traditional interpretations...eagerly [absorbing] all manner of local beliefs and customs." While most Muslims are strong on using reason and intellectual answers (how often have I heard that the Trinity makes no logical sense as a reason to reject it?), Sufis shun this stress of reason in favor of "esotericism and devotionalism." Also Sufis were not interested in political power as their goal was union with God.
The author spoke of the Sufi Way - basically stages one goes through as he gradually discards the outer shell of religion to enter that coveted union with God. This is done through self-annihilation and denying self (nafs), encountering the Universal Spirit (ruh) and the two - nafs and ruh - battling it out for possession of the soul (qalb, literally "heart" which is "'the seat of an essence that transcends individual form'" according to Titus Burckhardt).
The Sufi's spiritual guide is a Pir, who enjoys much greater authority than any Shaykh or Caliph because he is "the friend of God" and "the eyes through which God regards the world."
"Love is the foundation of Sufism... It is love - not theology and certainly not the law - that engenders knowledge of God.... God's very essence - God's substance - is love." And when Sufis speak of their love for God, Aslan points out, they aren't talking of the Christian concept of agape rather "the unconditional surrender to the Beloved's will, with no regard for one's own well-being. This is love to the point of utter self-annihilation; indeed, that is its very purpose."
Aslan was talking about this Sufi love and then I was a bit shocked when he informed me that Iblis - or Satan - was the "perfect lover and the paradigm of love." Why? Because he refused to bow to Adam not out of disobedience, but because he was fully devoted to God! Obviously, in my opinion, this only works if you believe the Islamic version of the fall of Satan. Basically God told his angels to bow to Adam, but Satan refused. (I remember expressing my own puzzlement about bowing to man when I read Sura 7 earlier this year.) The Quran actually states that it was Satan's arrogance that causes him to refuse, but it seems Sufis have their own version or else they just choose to not believe the Quran on this. The Biblical version - or the one that I've always been taught - was that Satan or Lucifer's heart was filled with pride and he wanted to be God and this was his downfall. There was no bowing to Adam involved. He actually refused to bow to God in a sense. So, anyway, this Sufi admiration of Iblis just threw me for a loop. It reminded me of the time I read about Saul Alinsky who dedicated one of his books to Lucifer for daring to rebel against the establishment and winning his own kingdom! I'm not that much of a rebel!
Sufis believe in no dualities. There is no good, evil, light, darkness - only God. They take the oneness of God to this extreme. While I admire the Sufis in some ways and could relate to them a little, I found myself a bit wary of them towards the end of the chapter. Aslan discusses contemplative and physical ways Sufis try to gain union with God. There is meditation, dancing, singing, self-mutilation, rhythmic breathing and chanting.
Jesus taught about denying self and taking up our crosses and following him. I can see the self-denial of the Sufis and I admire them in this aspect. I love that they don't focus on political agendas or adhering to tradition and laws. I love their love for love. (Ha, ha). Jesus focused on loving others and said this was the proof that you were his disciple: the love you had for one another. But Jesus also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This was actually "like unto" the greatest commandment which was to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds. I guess I am confused how one self-mutilates and loves himself enough to love his neighbor in the same way. Perhaps these few pages just were not enough to explain Sufis to me. Do they serve others? Do they have the abundant, full lives that Jesus promised those who followed him?
Or should I learn from the Sufis and realize all this stuff around me is not important and I should focus on union with God? How does one achieve union with God? It seems they focus more on themselves than serving others which is a crucial teaching of Jesus. Indeed Jesus said it was when we feed the hungry, clothe the needy, take care of the sick, do for the least among us, that we do these very things to him!
Admitting the Sufis leave me a bit puzzled would be safe to say. Can you shed more light on them? What do you admire about them? What do you have problems with? What have I totally not understood concerning them? And is Jesus more "sufi" than I'd like to think? Perhaps my Western outlook on mysticism colors my view and thus leaves me skeptical.