What is Sufism?

What is Sufism and why does it matter?

Before we begin I think it would be prudent for me to explain my views a little. Firstly, I am not a Muslim, nor am I religious in the sense that I observe or practice any faith. I am however, naturally curious, and see value in understanding phenomena in the world in a more comprehensive manner than what is handed down through mass media and cultural norms. My interest in Sufism  began with the poet Rumi, as I’m sure it did for many others. I don’t claim to understand Sufism very well, it is complex and multifaceted, involving many differences in practice and ideology, but from what I have found I see in it great potential for bridging the gap between Islam and the West, a gap that has become unhelpfully wide. This is not necessarily because Sufis are “better” or more peaceful than wider Islam, but because it presents the least prickly path to a Western mind, conditioned to be repulsed by Islam, to look deeper into the faith. It should be noted that the following text is the authors’ opinion and may not necessarily be reflective of truth, and so one may carry with them into it Leary’s mantra, “think for yourself, question authority.”

Belief, for me, doesn’t enter into the question where religion is concerned. I find it pragmatic to immerse myself in the techniques and practices of a faith, without accepting the ideology as necessarily true or false. This approach has been met by skeptics of religion as soft, wishy washy and less-than-rational, but I don’t find much use in taking a strong stance on something prior to experiencing it first-hand.

When it comes to the internal, subjective environment, quantitative research methods are significantly less useful than when dealing with the external, and so we must find better ways of looking at ourselves with clear eyes, humility, and honesty. Within these religious traditions there are many such techniques.

It shouldn’t really matter to any genuinely religious person whether the canonical texts are factual or not. Faith is a state of open minded and vulnerable trust towards reality itself, and there little if any room in that way of being for certainty or some kind of reward for piety. The accuracy of religion claims has become a daft side-argument that has come to dominate religious discourse and has made it into a debate-club style echo-chamber. Unfortunately this approach is fueled by both theists and atheists, many of whom seem more concerned with proving or disproving than understanding the subtleties of metaphor and allusion in the texts.

So I don’t think Sufism is true per se, it’d be an absurd claim to make that Sufis saw the whole play of time and space from their vantage point in 12th century Persia and surrounds. However, they have dealt very commendably with most of the problems of human living, as the Zen people have, and for that I believe it’s worth giving them a look.

My interest here is in secularizing religious practice without removing the sacred. By that I mean drawing these practices, ways of thinking and ideas out of their rigid theistic contexts and demonstrating their unique pragmatism which requires no condition, while not reducing them to the kind of dry wafer biscuit descriptions that neuroscience and mainstream psychology have applied.

Oh, just quickly, those dry biscuit descriptions? They’re useful in a limited sense, but very useful within that framework. The problem with them in my eyes lies in their misapplication, we assume quantitative descriptors can apply with equal validity to qualitative phenomena. To me this seems like using a telescope to see across the room.

Sufism is a branch of Islam focused on the esoteric meaning of the Koran and Hadith, and revolving around a form of gnosis, or knowledge, gained through firsthand experience and direct investigation of the heart and psyche.

Sufism seems to sit closer to the original sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as seen in the Koran and Hadith than more recent variations on Islam such as the Wahhabism  and Salafists, although it should be noted that this is the authors’ opinion and not an objective fact. For the Sufis, rational exploration of the theology through abstraction, logic and analytics was insufficient to gain a genuine understanding of spiritual knowledge, in other words, you can’t get it from books. They saw zawq, or taste, and direct experience to be far superior methods of investigating matters of the heart and the spiritual life.

The Sufis believed that truth could only be sought with the entirety of one’s being, every sense active and vital, and for them it wasn’t enough simply to “know” of the spirit, they sought total dissolution into it, a cessation of identification with the personal into non-dual awareness; in their framework, Allah.

It’s not a religion unto itself, although some detractors paint it as such in order to decouple it with what they see as “legitimate” Islam. Rather, it is a version or interpretation of Islam, not unlike Zen is a version or interpretation of Buddhism. Like any esoteric tradition, due to the potentially aggressive nature of it’s exoteric counterpart, it must carefully use the vernacular of the original canonical texts to discuss what usually amounts to variations on the perennial philosophy.

Much Sufi poetry refers to intoxication, which could potentially mean several different things. One, that the Sufi’s esoteric study had led them to the recognition that the prohibition against intoxication in the Sharia was, like other laws that restrict consciousness, patently absurd. Two, it could be allegorical, referring to the states of consciousness that resemble drunkenness or intoxication as one nears closer to union with non-dual awareness. Three, it could be that, as the Quran only forbids the drinking of wine, the Sufis were involved with the use of hashish or some other local psychoactive plant.

Music, art, dance and poetry all feature heavily in the lives of the Sufis, forming strong foundations for the sense of beauty and awe in their faith. It is somewhat surprising for a westerner, who has been informed through the mainstream media outlets available to me that Islam is anti-creativity and anti-freedom of expression, to hear about these odd fellows who so cherish the intellectual and artistic life.

That Sufism is an integral part of the Islamic faith is likely only surprising to the West and to myself because of the lack of coverage of the faith in media. That it is varied and that aspects of are involved with violence is also unsurprising to anyone that studies religion, ideology, or herd mentality in general.

It’s clear that there’s a large split in Islam between the kind of frightened, self-involved characters who strap on explosive vests and AK-47’s and seek their identity in bloodshed and martyrdom, and these peaceful and subtle poet-philosophers who seek it in friendship and union with their god. When so many young Muslim men are rushing off to find their identity in the empty spasms of theofascist violence being mass produced out of Islamic State, what more could we ask for than an existing counter-narrative of brotherhood and love within the faith itself?

Why is the global public being left unaware of a potential avenue for constructive reform within the Muslim community, a call to the Islamic body of people, who have been lied to horribly by nasty little old men with their pockets full of petrodollars to reconnect with an Islamic identity that is not only canonical, but compassionate, vital and creative.

From my research, it seems that Islamic State strongly opposes Sufism . I’ll state that more clearly: the branch of Islam that the mainstream press, notable public figures such as Bill Maher,  and our political leadership associates with the “true” Islam violently opposes what can be seen as the living core of the faith, the heart, the passion, the awe, the call to a wonderment with life and a joyous and humble relationship with the mystery of being.

Recent stories out of the Middle East show IS involved in the destruction of various holy sites of religious significance, including Sufi sites and several temples including at Palmyra in Syria. This raises the question, if ISIS are Islamic, why are they destroying sites belonging to their own faith? This would be akin to a Catholic ultranationalist army going after the tomb of St. Paul, or sacking the Vatican.

It makes little sense to proclaim IS as reflective of the deepest strains of Islam when they appear to be tearing the historical and symbolic roots from the faith. These sites are tied strongly to the identity of the people, and it seems that the most likely explanation for their destruction by the militant group is to force a monopoly on Islamic identity in the region, to erase all culture but their own spasmodic and bloodthirsty theocracy.

In contrast, the Sufi community seems to be producing anti-extremism at a similar rate as IS is producing it’s opposite. Canadian Muslim Sayyid Ahmed Amiruddin is running a twelve step de-radicalization program focused on turning Muslims away from war and jihad and towards contemplation. On the subject, he says that “…in order to create and sustain effective de-radicalization strategies, a major component of counter-terrorism involves the prevention of radicalization through fostering committed partnerships with expert groups within a given community who are working for the de-legitimization of violent extremism. The proliferation of an integral Islamic counter-narrative in the context of being Canadian, and the integration of people at the individual, social, and political level.”

This suggestion, that greater community engagement is a large part of the puzzle in combating religious violence, is one that has been floated more than once in Australia. Unfortunately, it seems that apart from some token spending on isolated programs, there has been no interest in coming together to solve these tensions, rather we see more appeals to nationalism and characterizations of Islam as the enemy of the West by our political class. It makes one wonder whether, considering the success of programs like Amiruddin’s, we’re really committed to stopping extremism after all, or whether it provides for our leaders too convenient an excuse to employ austerity measures to ignore.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met with Sufi leaders in India to discuss strategies for moving forward on the issue, and has recognized the role they may play in doing so:

It is essential for Sufi saints and scholars to counter these forces through various avenues including on social media so that the ideology of extremism does not take root in India,” he said.

“The tradition of Sufism has kept evil at bay, wherever it has continued to flourish”.

According to Philip Jenkins, a Professor at Baylor University, “the Sufis are much more than tactical allies for the West: they are, potentially, the greatest hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim nations.”

It seems that there is significant recognition of Sufism as a potential bulwark against the most violent and oppressive aspects of Islam, and it seems to me prudent to build on this existing momentum.

So, we discussed briefly before that the Sufis saw taste, or zawq, of being highly important to the development of a sophisticated personal spirituality. I have here a poem by the Persian mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, to be more accurate it is a version produced by American poet and author Coleman Barks. The subtle elegance of phrase in Rumi’s work I believe draws out some of the character of this zawq, and can help us to feel into what the mind of a Sufi might resemble.

“I am so small

How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes,

they are small,

but they see enormous things.”

And another…

“Today, like every other day,

we wake up empty and frightened.

Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading,

Take down a musical instrument

Let the beauty we love, be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel

and kiss the ground.”

This kaleidoscopic worshiping is one of the most touching aspects of mystic philosophies everywhere, the notion that form is a mask of the divine practically bursting with ecstasy speaks to a basic sense of wonderment all too lacking in our twenty-first century mindset, where everything has a price and everything that doesn’t, isn’t worth our time.

To wrap all this up, it seems that Sufism is in a somewhat unique position, not just to transform the attitudes of the West towards Islam, but also to provide a constructive avenue for growth within the Muslim community, away from extremism and towards social cohesion and peaceful worship. Within the sect there are strong anti-radical elements, and numerous progressive thinkers and do-ers concerned with forwards movement. This is not to imply that these elements do not exist elsewhere in Islam, merely that the form they take in Sufism is perhaps the most palatable to Western audiences. It is my view that closer engagement with Sufi communities around the globe can aid us not only in stopping the spread of religious violence, but also in enriching our own lives with the kind of child-mind openness to beauty we have exchanged for dollars and sense, or the lack of it at any rate.

Here’s to a fruitful, collaborative relationship between Islamic mysticism and the West.


7 thoughts on “What is Sufism?

  1. Very interesting perspective. I’m heartened to learn that Sufism and related groups are working to balance the radicalism of Islam. I would love to see the spirit of love and brotherhood promoted to allow Muslims and other faiths to peacefully co-exist.
    Thanks, Brad


  2. Another well crafted argument! However I personally cannot see how another “ism” can make any significant difference to the way things are polarizing. It may slow it down, but that would have more to do with an economic and political weakening of the established “Christian” west. The West created Islamic radicalization, and the growing violence within Islam is deliberately fed by the US-EU military industrial complex and attendant right-winged Christian views. Control of mainstream media ensures that the violence can be safely promoted without too many people aware of the background shenanigans. Killing of innocent civilians for no reason, and pouring weaponry in the same area is a guarantee that violence will ensue.

    The other point is, religion and violence go hand-in-hand throughout history. Every major religion also has had its peacenik groups but these have never been allowed to interfere with the business of control through force and violence. When they gained too much momentum they were annihilated. In terms of numbers, what percentage of Muslims are Sufis? It is an interesting thought, that a group within a group could change the whole group but it doesn’t happen. The great protestant reformation in Europe didn’t stop the violence of the Catholic church, it made religious persecution into absolute horror. If the Sufis become popular in the west, or among enough Muslims to begin a shift they will be destroyed.

    Essentially the people of earth always want war. They may say they want peace, but always on their own terms, which is a declaration of war. Then their words, their acts, their policies follow into actual war. Neither Sufism nor any other religious or quasi-religious grouping can change that mindset. You need to look deeper, much deeper, to find the final solution to man’s innate desire and love of violence against each other and against nature.


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