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October 5, 2019

Rediscovering the teachings of Sufism for the 21st Century

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Sufism, the ancient expression of Islamic spirituality and aesthetics, has sadly taken a back seat in the popular imagination since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its deadly partner, Islamist extremism.

But today, even as some Muslims (especially the young) are still being recruited by terrorist organizations that have hi-jacked the faith, many other Muslims are rediscovering a deeper personal spirituality through Sufi teachings and practices.

This is not an easy choice in the 21st century, as political Islam not only smears Sufism and calls its adherents “heretics,” but in its most repressive forms it has also been killing them.

As recently as November 24, 2017 more than 300 worshipers, including innocent women and children, were murdered inside an Egyptian mosque during Friday prayer. This tragedy hit me hard, as I was visiting my birth country at the time.

Islamic sciences were developed by leading Muslim scholars soon after the death of Prophet Muhammad. These disciplines include law, Qur’anic studies, Hadith studies (the Prophet’s teachings), world history, theology (Islam and other major faiths), Islamic and Greek philosophy, and spirituality.

Giving spirituality distinction as a separate field of prescribed study was unique to Islam at the time and became known as Sufism.

Over the past 1,000 years a number of excellent books were written in classical Arabic, describing in detail its teachings and practices. In succeeding centuries, some were translated into English, French, German, and other European languages. This expanded access in turn attracted many Westerners who embraced Sufism’s principles and practices and contributed to it through their own experiences.

The basic teaching of Sufism is this: Muslims must live in true Islam (which means Peace) as the Prophet teaches. They believe and know that a God whom they cannot see loves them and interacts with them and they express that divine love in return.

This core understanding led Sufis to teach that all Muslims must first reform themselves before attempting to reform society at large. To help their coreligionists, they established Tariqa, schools of Sufism, as far East as Indonesia, India and Iran; further West in Morocco and Spain; to the North in Russia; and even as far as South Africa.

In fact, Sufis are credited for the spread of Islam into Asia and Africa and for contributing classic works to Islamic literature and the arts.

With their great emphasis on the internal life and aesthetics, Sufis are often stereotyped as pacifists and non-combatants. While not initiators of conflict, they have led liberation movements against European colonial occupations in Africa and Asia since the 1500s; however, they never seek political office.

While Sufism has produced a number of manuals and guides for novices exploring this spiritual discipline, any experienced practitioner will insist that the best way to learn the inner aspects of Islam is at the hands of a genuine Sufi master. Students of Sufism are called muridun, meaning “aspirants.” Committed and would-be students alike are warned to avoid those who pretend to be Sufis.

Under the guidance of their teachers, muridun are given hands-on spiritual instruction by levels, graduating from one level or maqamat to the next, in order to attain a series of ahwal, or states-of-being.

Bona fide Sufis refer to their practice as mahabba, or love and refer to themselves collectively as muhibbun, those who are possessed by love. They quote the Prophet saying, “Man is in the company with [those] whom he loves” and that the truest love humanity can have is the love of the Almighty and all of divine creation.

Sufis justify group practices such as Zikr – in which the many names and attributes of God are honored through recitation – as ideal exercises for softening and opening the heart. The same holds true for Sama, listening and singing along to Islamic poetry about divine love. Sufis often incorporate quotations from the Qur’an in their recitations and emphasize the music and rhythms embedded in its verses.

Some of the greatest Sufi masters were women who counted male scholars among their disciples. One of these was Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (c. 720 – 801 CE); she was born in Basra and died in Jerusalem. Al-‘Adawiyya was widely known for her teachings emphasizing the centrality God’s love. This is an example of her poetic prayers:

O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your own sake, bless me with Your everlasting Beauty.

Imam Junayd (830-910 CE) from Baghdad, was another great early Sufi who was renowned for articulating the foundations of Sufism and spreading knowledge of its practices. His school of Sufism is called the Junaidia; unfortunately, very few of his writings have survived.

Although no school was established in his name, Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240 CE), wrote many volumes on the spiritual teachings of Islam. Much of his work does survive, not only in Arabic, but in English and other languages. His writings are more accessible to advanced graduate students of Islamic spirituality.

Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968), an American Trappist monk, wrote more than 70 books on spirituality, social justice, war, and peace. Speaking to a group of Catholic Sisters in Alaska just two-and-a-half months before his death, he said:

“Sufism looks at man as a heart and a spirit and a secret ... This is a very important concept in the contemplative life, both in Sufism and in Christian tradition: To develop a heart that knows God, not just a heart that loves God, but a heart that knows God.”

(From Merton and Sufism, The Untold Story, edited by Rob Baker and Gray Henry; Foss Vitae 1999.)

In Sufi Essays, Prof Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasar (b.1933) discusses his own research in Sufi doctrine, history and teachings as they relate to current issues, such as ecology. Nasar is Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and the author of more than 50 books, as well as over 500 research papers and articles.

René Guenon (1886-1951) was a French philosopher who studied mathematics and religion at the University of Paris and converted to Islam in 1912 while still in his twenties. He visited Egypt in 1930, intending to remain for three months. He ended up staying for the rest of his life and even became an Egyptian national shortly before his death.

Writing exclusively in French, he authored some of the most inspiring books on religious spirituality within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Taoism, and on the urgent need for this practice in the modern world.

Among his best-known titles are: The Symbolism of the Cross, Lord of the World, Man and His Becoming According to Vedanta, East and West, and The Crisis of the Modern World.

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