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Sufism - Revering Human Potential

All major religions contain a general notion that reality is multilayered. In medieval Europe this was known as the scala naturae (“ladder of nature”) which later philosophers termed the “great-chain-of-being,” referring to a strict hierarchy extending from matter (nature) to angels to the perfection of God.

Incidentally, this type of thinking also justified social hierarchies, East and West, and I think we can safely jettison such notions in the modern world. Also, this presentation ignores the fact that the strictness of the hierarchy has never been totally universal. But the sense of a cosmos with overlapping layers of density and light, material hardness and ethereal effervescence, I believe can be said to be universal. 


The great chain is said to apply in both the microcosm and the macrocosm. Individually, human beings are said to have: body, mind, and soul. That is a very general schemata, it can be elaborated on in its biological, psychological, and spiritual aspects as the: body (sensory apparatus), heart (emotions), mind (mental cognition), soul (intuition), and Spirit (pure awareness/being). This microcosm reflects the macrocosm.


Since prehistory, certain gifted individuals – Shamans – have performed a crucial occupation for tribes as intermediaries who communicate with, at least, three worlds (each linked by a “world tree,” a pillar, or mountain, which is an important symbol in later religious art and sacred geometry; the tree of knowledge/life, architecture, etc.) . There is an underworld, the abode of animal spirits that guide human beings on earth (which can be reified as the unconscious, our instinctual self). There is the world as we know it, the middle-world of earth, which is the tangible, physical realm of nature, as well as the social realm of culture. And there is a higher world, the abode of divine beings with higher wisdom (which can be reified as super-consciousness, or heaven).

According to the religious scholar Huston Smith, reality has been broadly understood this way by religious people the world over, in marked contrast to modern societies. Traditionally, the universe was divided into separate, yet overlapping realms: the terrestrial, the intermediate, the celestial, and the Infinite. The esoteric teachings of all major religions, which record their truths in sacred texts and yet owe a debt to our preliterate ancestors, basically agree that there are different levels of selfhood and different levels of reality. 


Islam is no different. Islam is often conceived of (by both its followers and detractors) as a strict, domineering, and explicitly political religion. Unfortunately, while it is true that much of the mainstream media in the West is biased, the images and personalities they chronicle are not total fabrications either. Historically, the line between secular matters (including government) and religion has been often been tenuous, sometimes non-existent, in Islamic kingdoms and empires. The reason for is that Muslims have believed that the justice, peace, and prosperity required of a civilization depends on divine guidance. Today there are radical elements, usually inspired by the hard-line ideologies beaming out of Riyadh and Tehran, that seek a return to, what they perceive as, the strict puritanical ethos of the Islam practiced by the first Muslims.


This strictness can be very harsh, hardly a breeding ground for mystical thought. It is also unfortunate that Islamic history is not free of cultural intolerance and bloody conquests, which seems to lend credence to some critics who believe that this is a direct result of the aggressive attitude Islam fosters in its followers. However, for Sufis, the real Islam is its mystical core of Sufism, and truly, without this inner aspect, the full meaning of Islam is lost.


While rules and laws are a foundation of morality, there must be an inner development, what Sufis call “completion.” As Jesus said, “I didn’t come to destroy the old religion, but to fulfill it.” Indeed, if we only rely on laws to guide us, we lack the inspiration from which true religion springs. For example, children need structure to behave properly because of their natural egocentrism, but hopefully as they mature, they do good deeds for intrinsic reasons rather than to obtain a reward or to avoid punishment. According to Sufism, a completed human being is naturally attracted to God and eliminates barriers in order to open up the infinite splendor of divine love (ishq).




The message of mysticism is non-duality. This means that the highest, or, if you prefer, deepest, aspect of both selfhood and reality is none other than Godhead. A metaphor of the unity between the individual and Godhead is that of a drop that dissolves into the ocean, and thus becomes the ocean. However, it’s just as valid to say the ocean is also contained in the drop, as water is water. Another metaphor is that of a wave and water. All waves, whether big or small, have the same quality of being wet (suchness) that transcends the individual differences of the waves.


In Sanskrit, the ancient religious language of India, Brahman (infinite Godhead) is “eka” – One without a second. Brahman is both personal, or with attributes (saguna), and transcendental, or without attributes (nirguna). This concept anticipates some Islamic doctrines. The call to prayer in Islam starts out – “Allah hu akbar” meaning “God is greater than.” God is greater than anything in comparison. Like Yoga, Sufism is a method of directing knowing this greater Being.


The Great Chain of Being


First, let’s look at the Islamic conception of the macrocosm. Manifest creation, including djinn (beings of smokeless fire), live in mulk (the kingdom). Humans are part of this mundane order of sentient beings (nasrut), but are also privileged, or burdened, depending on your perspective, with malakut (dominion). With knowledge comes power, and just as humans have a special responsibility on earth, Allah is the Sustainer of the entire universe and has ultimate power. Jabbarut (domination) means everything follows the will of Allah: the electrons spinning in the atom, gravity, the division of cells, the instincts of animals, etc. This is even true of hell, not necessarily as a separate realm of eternal punishment, but a purgatory to discipline the soul, melting away impurities like gold smelted in fire. Human beings have a choice over whether to follow this divine will or not, a greater power than any of Allah’s other creations, even the angels in heaven. Beyond the manifest world is the divine (lahut) and the perfection of Being (alam-e-hahoot).


Now let’s look at Sufi conception of the individual in her make up. These are called the “lataif-e-sitta” (the six subtleties): nafs/tab - base ego/animal nature, qalb/aql - heart/intellect, ruh - soul, sirr - secret, khafi - higher Self, and akhfa - innermost Being. These psycho-spiritual organs of perception share a similar, though not exact, correspondance to other esoteric systems, such as the sephiroth in Kaballah or the chakras in Tantra. Our purpose as human beings is to purify our psychic functions so that they are a receptacle for divine love. As the Hermetic Western Tradition teaches “as above, so below.” Another appropriate symbol, to borrow from Hinduism, is Indra’s net. Reality is like a boundless net, and at each node is a diamond in which every other diamond is reflected. This means that the universe is flooded with divine energy throughout and retains a sacred character, even in the midst of the mundane.




So how do we achieve this purification? Muslims are obligated to observe the five pillars (arkan al-Islam) of: faith, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage. Some Sufis, however, teach that completion is a universal path, as long as one follows the proper teachings of his or her religion. Sufism proper has three main practices. This requires a leader (Sheikh). Study can be done one-on-one, but traditionally has been done in groups (tariqa).


One major practice is meditation. This is a focus on a certain object, such as the name of Allah, a verse from the Qur’an, or the esoteric meaning behind Arabic letters (which make up the former). This practice of analyzing letters is reminiscent of the Kabbalistic science of Gematria, which involves investigating the Torah by analyzing Hebrew letters/numbers. Since Islam forbids making a physical likeness of Allah, a tradition of calligraphy in Islamic art and literature resulted from the fanciful use of letter-writing and geometric design. In addition to this, some aspirants focus directly on the qualities of their teacher, the Pir-o-Murshid, as an inspiration.


Another major practice is dhikr (remembrance of Allah). One common method is the type of meditation mentioned above. In group ceremonies dhikr practices can vary from sect to sect, such as singing, chanting, instrumental music, and praying at shrines.


A third practice is sama (listening). The Mevlevi tradition from Turkey practices sama in the form of a well-known whirling dance, a continuous motion that exemplifies the attitude of worship (gratitude for Allah’s mercy for creating life, and compassion for sustaining us on earth and in the afterlife). This may have been a formalization of an ancient technique, a trance-inducing worship that can be found in several places across the globe that Muslims have come into contact with.


Indeed, the most sacred place in Islam is the Ka‘ba in the Arabian city of Mecca. This is a cube structure which contains a stone pillar that has been considered holy, likely a fallen meteorite. Muslims believe that this is the original shrine of monotheism and was consecrated by the prophet Abraham. During the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims circumambulate the Ka‘ba seven times (tawaf). It appears the Ka‘ba was already a type of axis mundi long before the Prophet Muhammad, as travelers and pilgrams worshipped tribal gods by spinning around it in a ritual whose origin is unknown.


While the contemplative objects of Sufism may be Islamic, meditation itself is not unique to Sufism. Sama and dhikr, in a general sense, can also be found in all religions. This shows that Sufism, while rooted in Islam, is not restricted to Islam, but is a universal path in sync with the mystical core of all wisdom traditions.  




Perhaps the best known legacy of the Sufis is their literature. Poets and story-tellers use a coded language to represent the spiritual path. Drunkenness is God-intoxication, and wine is the means to open the heart. The tavern is a meeting place, a crossroads between worldly and other-worldly. The lover and the beloved are the union between soul and God. Meanings can also be literal. Loving a human being, in any capacity, is essentially the same as loving God, since each person is a manifestation of the divine Source. Thus, it’s difficult to draw a line between literal and metaphorical meaning. Rumi, for instance, was fond of word play, and some of his writings have the flavor of the Zen koan or the parables of Jesus.


As with other art-forms, when reading this poetry, it is best to let it speak for itself and not analyze it too much. This is because, on the Sufi path, as with other mystical systems, one must go beyond divisions and reach the boundless realm of the soul.


For a broader overview of the Primordial Tradition, see Huston Smith: