"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Trying to Understand Sufism

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.



Hijabis On Ranting Tour. said...

Your Post was very interesting, actually your whole blog is, and thats why i love visiting it, sometimes i think i learn more about my own religion or atleast about Muslims, from your blog,then anywhere else, i guess its because once you just live within a religion or a certain kind of sect , then you learn to accept the values you were taught and consider that as the truth that you dont research other sects of your own religion, like i feel i read more about different religions then i do about Islam, oh yeah where is my comment going, so thats probably why i dont know much about sufism apart from they wear white cloths sometimes, yeah the Islamic story of the downfall of shaitan is that he chose his arrogance over the command of God, im sure you know that Islam doesnt encourage the bowing to men, as we are not allowed to bow, or even kneel to prophets or anyone, but the one thing Islam does stress is that you follow the commands of god, full stop and when the devil was asked 2 boy to adam he said i am made from fire, and him of dust or something similar to that since he beleived he was superior to Adam and all of HUmanity he refused to bow, i dont understand how pridem and refusing gods orders, is an admirable position to take- also generally Islam isnt a very ritual orientated religion and Sufis and even Shias use a lot of rituals i dont understand Self Harm because the quran and Islam is totally against self harm as we are taught that your body has a right over you, and just as in christianity the dissaproval of self harm is why suicide etc is a grave sin, so i dont know why some sects self harm to prove loyalty wouldnt it to be better to just remain Loyal to the teachings?. Haha from this you can probably figure im sunni Muslim.

Also i dont understand the trinity either id love it if you would try 2 explain but i do understand that religion does a lot of the time just run on faith and trust, so i understand why people do beleive in the trinity even if we cant make complete sense of it.

Ok best wishes :)
naz @ somalianarab.blogspot.com

Suroor said...

Many people have told me that I am a Sufi :) I do think Jesus was a Sufi Master and although I don't follow any Sufi order or Sufi master, if Jesus was alive today I would have followed his order.

Irving Karchmar, a Sufi darvish, has been my greatest inspiration. He doesn't believe in Hell and his mystic order does place reasonable emphasis on the teachings of Jesus. From Irving I have learned that Sufis love all people and all animals. He has taught me that when one sets out of home in the morning, they should pray to Allah to guide them and make them useful to others. He says that even if we carry groceries for a neighbour, it is an act of worship.

There are certainly orders that believe in self-mutilation but those are very few and the followers are not educated (remember I did a post on Arab Sufis who whipped themselves?).

Regarding Satan - many early Arab Christians also believed the same story of Satan refusing to bow to Adam. So did the Jews. This story also appears in a gospel that was once standard reading in a Coptic church. Modern Christians in the West may not recognise it today but many Copts believe in this story even today. I had a discussion on it with my Coptic BIL and he definitely knows the story. This refusal to bow is seen by Sufis as immense love. A famous Urdu poet, Iqbal, wrote a beautiful poem on it like Milton's Paradise Lost. A famous Sufi teacher, Mohammad Reza Rikhtehgaran, has this to say about Satan:

"At the stage of ihsan the creation of evil is regarded as goodness. As a result, whatever is in the universe is good. One cannot consider anything evil. If there is any, it takes its origin from man’s ego. So the whole of creation is submitted to God’s order. Satan too is the manifestation of the attributes of His Misguidance, and the prophets are the manifestations of the attributes of His Guidance. Satan spins the veil, and he veils what should be under the veil. So, he serves the very same threshold. The dweller of the station of ihsan beholds Satan and the evil-doer as necessary beings. The Absolute Benevolent emanates only blessing."

I don't know if I have managed to make sense or answer your questions but this is what came to my mind :)

Anonymous said...

Hello :)
I haven't read Azlan's book so I can't comment on it but I do believe that Sufism isn't a 'sect' of Islam, it has been part of Islamic Orthodoxy since the beginning in a 'sober' form, it's just the utterances of 'intoxicated' Sufi's that have got them into trouble. but you will find that even Orthodox theologians don't dismiss the things that have been said, they just say that it should have been kept quiet.

Also Sufi's do believe in Dualism in the material world, in fact they believe that small reality as we understand it is constructed by these dualisms as they are manifested by the Names of Allah, which can be split into two categories, names of Majesty and names of Beauty, but the focus of the human being should be to try to transcend these dualisms through seeking nearness to Allah, the point where all these dualisms are unified. If you look at the heart of all religions (the mystical heart) you will find something similiar.

Service is essential in Sufism, the whole point is to understand that significance lies not with yourself but with God as manifested through His creation so we serve His creation.

Also there is no admiration for Iblis, rather we watch out for the pitfall of the ego even within things that are supposedly good, such as love for God.

peace :)

Sophia said...

Keep in mind, Aslan did say that Sufi's are hard to pin down. There is a LOT of variety in their practices. Some probably do practice the "weird" stuff, some seem pretty "normal" to me.

Many Sufi's have been cast as disbelievers because of their unorthodox practices and statements... but just about anyone who breaks the usual pattern gets that kind of treatment, it seems. I'm still studying Sufism myself, but at this point I am fairly attracted to their (general) beliefs. Whether or not its logical, I like that Sufi's tend to "tune-out" the more negative parts of the Quran (and Islam) and try to focus on and live the good parts. I think the world could use more love.

I'm currently reading A Perspective on the Signs of Al-Quran: Through the prism of the heart by Saeed Malik. Its not a "Sufi" book per se, but it does focus heavily on the Quran and the poetry of Rumi.

Susanne said...

Naz, so nice to read your thoughts on this post! I know what you mean about just accepting some parts of your religion because it's how you've always been taught. I've enjoyed learning about my own faith - and being challenged to KNOW why I believe what I do - from other bloggers. I appreciate you sharing some of the Islamic views on Satan and bowing to people and so forth. Interesting stuff! :)

Susanne said...

Suroor, I didn't understand the Sufi darvish role. Is that like the leader of a Sufi order or is that just what a follower of Sufism calls himself? Do you think the story of Satan refusing to bow to Adam is part of the midrash that others became familiar with due to the popularity of Jewish legends? I just grew up thinking of Satan as the enemy of God and all of us so I find absolutely nothing redeeming about him. I was always taught we should hate this evil liar who was the opposite of our gracious Savior. (You know we Americans have our evil vs. good thing going on!) I guess this is why I find admiration of Satan shocking to say the least!

Thanks for what you added!

Susanne said...

Asiya, thank you! So you are Sufi? I'm really glad to hear your point of view as it seems quite different from what Aslan shared. I greatly appreciate you adding your thoughts. Sounds very nice how you put it. :)

Oh and welcome!

Susanne said...

Sophia, thanks for what you added. I always had a good impression of Sufis so I was a bit dismayed at this chapter. Perhaps I just focused more on the stuff I found weird instead of what you added. I like much of what both you and Asiya said. I appreciate your perspective.

And welcome!

Thank you all for your comments!

Suroor said...

Yes, a dervish is a disciple of a Sufi Master who is the head of a Sufi order. There are many Sufis who don’t belong to any order and don’t follow any Master. In some cases it borders shirk (so most Muslims believe) because Sufis tend to (sometimes obsessively) revere saints and masters. It is a huge problem that Ziauddin Sardar often discusses in his works.

Look, I am no Satanist :D but I do understand the Sufi perspective and I can’t believe in a God who has massive mood swings :D He is either ALL merciful or ALL aggressive. I believe in an all Merciful God and so I do believe that He will pardon Satan (which I also think is not a physical being but our inner evil). I believe in Jesus’ message of loving our enemies and I believe Jesus was human so if a human can come up with such extreme form of mercy and forgiveness, I can’t imagine the mercy and forgiveness of God. I can’t claim that I believe that Jesus had a fully moral lesson to teach AND that God will eternally punish all evil (including Satan). I can’t say Jesus was all sweet words and moral lessons about a God who will fail to find something redeeming about His own creation. And if the Sufis can see through the jealousness and possessiveness of Satan, then certainly God can see it too. If God is omnipotent, all knowing and all hearing then it would be very unfortunate that He could err and create His own enemy in the form of Satan. Satan is merely a metaphor that most of us believe as a living, breathing entity. Of course he lives in all of us and thrives on our stupidities :-D but it would defeat everything I believe about God if He decides to be all aggressive, jealous, angry and revengeful. Savior is not a savior if he is not merciful and what savior would be merciful if he failed to love his enemy? He would be missing his own lesson otherwise! In fact, I think Jesus DID forgive Satan on the Cross when he said, “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they do.” Strange that we are taught to continue to hate what Jesus forgave 2000 years ago. Nothing could be more damaging to Satan than to ignore him completely - kill that evil inner being. That’s how I feel anyway.

Satan refusing to bow to Adam – yeah that was common knowledge in pre-Islamic Arabia. People had heard that story and believed in it.

Susanne said...

Suroor, wow, that was certainly an interesting take on Satan and God's mood swings. Do you think when Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus was fighting his own evil side? And when Satan talked to God about Job that was God talking to HIS evil side? Thanks for sharing your perspective of Satan. It's a totally new one for me and I found it very interesting!

I think Jesus forgave people on the cross, yes, but at the same time, I believe people can choose to not accept Christ. The Bible says it's those who don't believe who are condemned. Not everyone wants fellowship with God. I think it's God's goodness that allows us to choose whether or not to be in relationship with Him. Forcing a person to love and worship God is hell for those forced, isn't it? Why not let them choose their own path even if it means eternal separation from God? Maybe this is heaven to those who hate God. And we both know those people exist.

Thanks for your reply!

Suroor said...

Susie, I believe that Satan is not a living being outside human bodies. I treat him as a metaphor, but I will also accept that my understanding is coloured by the modern world. There are billions of believers who believe in miracles, superstitions, satan, angels and fairies and I respect that because it is religious tradition. In no way am I saying that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

I believe that Satan is a metaphor for the evil side of every human being. When Satan tempted Jesus or according to Judaism and Islam when 'he' tempted Abraham it doesn't only mean that their evil sides were tempting them and they overcame temptation (I know it is shocking for someone who believes Jesus was God to even hear that!), it could also mean that the evil side of some other human overcame them and tried to tempt Jesus and Abraham. Why do we have to assume that a literal Satan stood there talking to Jesus? And in my case, I believe Jesus was sinless so he comes out as a greater hero if he successfully overcame every temptation. That is why he was sinless while no one else was. He was created without that evil side, maybe? Similarly Satan talking to God about Job can be seen as an evil person talking to God. There are scores of evil people who challenge God, ridicule Him and call us delusional for believing in Him. They are, after all, human beings not some horned being made of light or fire or whatever. Fire has always been used as a metaphor for "burning passion" usually in a negative sense.

I actually see the early Judaic and Islamic perception of Satan to be more logical than the later Judaic and Christian tale of the First Sin. I think God is quite capable of creating Adam and Eve with both good and bad sides of their personalities. When He asked Satan to bow to Adam (acc to early Judaic and Islamic pov), He was commanding their evil side to submit to the good, but because of Free Will that didn't happen. God still gave them a chance in Paradise where they finally allowed temptation to overpower them. Why was Eve the one to tempt? Because Adam couldn't control his passion just like men still can't control their passion. It is a manufacturing fault :-D It is not because Eve was evil or mean or stupid, but simply that Eve was a woman and had a body of a woman! So in effect it was Adam's evil side that overpowered him and committed the First Sin. Now of course, I treat the whole story as a parable but ... :)

See why people tell me I think like a Sufi?! :)

Susanne said...

Suroor, quick question about your last comment: why do you say one view of Satan is early or later Judaic? Do you know which view was around first?

Suroor said...

Well from what I have gathered, Arab Jews and Christians couldn't read the Hebrew and Greek Bible. At least in Arabia it was only partially translated (mainly the OT) by Warraqa (Khadeejah's cousin). Much of the religious knowledge they had came either from religious legends and fables/tales or from partially translated texts. The Christians in Syria and Egypt particularly had beliefs that are uncommon in modern Christianity. For example, all Christians in those times in Arabia, Syria and Egypt believed that Jesus could speak at birth and had the power to give life. That is not believed to be true today in modern Christianity but you wouldn't read any document in which a Christian ever challenged that belief from the Quran in the 7th century Arabia.

Similarly Judeo-Christian legends contained the story of Satan not bowing to Adam and hence you wouldn't even read any 7th Century Arab Jew or Christian opposing that belief either.

There is nothing in the Quran that is a lie or a made-up tale or reference to non-canonised texts. Every reference to biblical event can be found in texts and oral traditions that were once fully accepted in Arabia. I don't believe that the Bible is corrupted but the version we read today is not the version that was read in 7th Century Arabia so the fault is not with the Quran; it truthfully refers to the common beliefs of Jews and Christians of that time including the story of Satan not bowing to Adam and Adam and Eve committing the first sin together.

Susanne said...

Thanks, Suroor! I find it all interesting and haven't heard much of what you are saying. That's why I like to ask questions of where you are coming from. I appreciate you taking time to answer.

Do you not think some of those legends are part of the Midrash which is just where Jewish rabbis took liberties with the gaps (lack of specific information) in the Bible and created their own tales? I really don't know where Midrash and Talmud stuff comes into play, but just throwing it out there to see what you think.

As for -- "For example, all Christians in those times in Arabia, Syria and Egypt believed that Jesus could speak at birth and had the power to give life." -- although the Bible doesn't have those same stories (at least the Bible that I have), I've always thought Jesus could give life. :)

John 1

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.

3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

Actually it does seem you believe the Bible I have today is corrupted. How else can you explain our Bible today being so different from the one the Arabs read in 7th century Arabia?

And if you believe the Quran doesn't tell any lies, well, let's just say that I can't agree with that. But then I hardly think this is surprising to you. :)

I appreciate your explanations and your willingness to teach me where you are coming from.! Many thanks!

Susanne said...

So now you made me curious and I did find this on Wikipedia under "Adam and Eve."

At this point, Adam takes a prominent role in Islamic traditions concerning the fall of Satan, which is not recorded in the Torah, but in the Book of Enoch which is used in Oriental Orthodox churches. In these, when God announces his intention of creating Adam, some of the angels express dismay, asking why he would create a being that would do evil. Teaching Adam the names reassures the angels as to Adam's abilities, though commentators dispute which particular names were involved; various theories say they were the names of all things animate and inanimate, the names of the angels, the names of his own descendants, or the names of God.


Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Suroor said...

"Actually it does seem you believe the Bible I have today is corrupted. How else can you explain our Bible today being so different from the one the Arabs read in 7th century Arabia?"

I don't think I was clear when I wrote that comment but I was assuming you knew my argument. I'm sorry. Let me try again.

Do you read the Infancy Gospel? Or the the Gospel of The Nativity of Mary? Both were canonised in the Ethiopian, Syrian and Coptic churches of Egypt. They existed in 7th Century Arabia as church-certified Texts. This is why some Arab Christians actually did worship Mary and treated her as part of the Trinity that Quran refers to in a couple of verses. The Gospel you read today took centuries to be accepted by the churches in those areas. Therefore, the Bible you read today in America is not the Bible that was read in 7th Century Arabia. Does that mean that the modern NT is corrupted? No! It just means that different churches had different texts at one time. Even the Copts today have a few texts that are studied in addition to the NT.

This is why Uthman burned all variant copies of the Quran and standarised it otherwise we would have had similar discussions on the Quran.

Susanne said...

Thanks for explaining. I'm about frustrated with religious stuff right now.


Suroor said...

For example, you quoted from John 1:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.

3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

For argument's sake let us imagine that 1400 years from now the NT that we have now is not the standard text anymore in the Church of England, for example. Instead they choose some other gospel as the canonised text and declare John to be an apocryphal text. Would it be fair if an English person 1400 years from now stands up to say that Susanne of America in This and That referred to an apocryphal text and hence her beliefs were wrong and she was a liar?

This is why I don't believe that there are any lies in the Quran.

Oh, that Wikipedia reference is cool. I'll go check it out.

Thanks Susie for tolerating me :)

Susanne said...

"Would it be fair if an English person 1400 years from now stands up to say that Susanne of America in This and That referred to an apocryphal text and hence her beliefs were wrong and she was a liar? "

What?! How DARE they? *shakes fist*


No, I get your point. I was misunderstanding what you meant about lies in the Quran. Since it differs so much from MY beliefs, of course I'd think it was made up of lies. :) However, I see from what you've pointed out that the Quran was only sharing what was common knowledge among a wide variety of oral tradition when it was "revealed from heaven."

No, thank YOU for tolerating me and freely sharing your thoughts despite my questioning ways. I apologize if I sound too aggressive. My passion oozes out sometimes before I can stop it. *sheepish grin*

Suroor said...

Why is "revealed from heaven" in quotation marks??? You don't believe Quran is "revealed from heaven"???

Hehe, just joking and teasing you, my Baptist friend!

I am so happy that we all can openly discuss religions on your blog without feeling any inhibitions and that despite our different beliefs we are so cordial and willing to understand each others' view points.

Susanne said...

It's funny teasing while we learn from one another. :)

Thanks, Suroor!