Sufism: The Mystic Soul of Islam-II-M.S. Srinivasan

Key-perspectives: religion and the mystic; islam and sufism; future possibilities.

Religion and the Mystic

We are now brought to an important and problematic subject: the relation between the mystic and the traditional religion, and in our case, between Sufism and traditional Islam.  Let us first examine the more general problem before coming to the specific problem of Sufism and the traditional Islam.  The creative source and core of all religion is spiritual.  This spiritual core, which is the life and soul of a religion, consists of a divine revelation, or some intuition, contact, experience or realization of some aspect of the divine Reality.  It is the mystic, the sage, saint, seer and the prophet, who can keep this spiritual core of the religion alive and creative by constantly rediscovering it through a fresh inner experience, intuition or revelation and also extending it through discovering new vistas of the spiritual reality.  So only the mystic can bring about a creative regeneration of religion through a constant renewal or reawakening of the spiritual core of religion.  No amount of innovation or expansion in the material, vital or mental dimensions of the religion, in the church or temple or the organization, number of followers or in philosophy, dogma or pietistic devotion or financial resources can save a religion, if the spiritual core of the religion is not kept alive through inner discipline and inner experience.  As Sri Aurobindo points out:

“Religions think that they live by their dogmas, their sacred books, their ceremonies, but these are all aids and trappings; they live really by the men who practice them, by their clergy and mystics, and much more by their mystics than by their clergy.  So long as a religion has in its fold a sufficient number of souls who can retire within themselves and there with God, so long it cannot help enduring, even though all the rest of the world is against it; once it loses this core of life no amount of temporal power and prestige, of attractive ceremonial or passionate belief and stiff dogmatism or even of wise and supple flexibility, savor-fare and self-adaptation can save it from its inevitable disappearance.”

So it is a wrong approach to judge the health or progress of a religion by its material or external resources like the number of followers or the economic or political power.  A religion, has to be judged by its creative contribution to the moral and spiritual development of mankind which means awakening humanity to higher values like Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Unity, Harmony, Freedom and Equality and a deeper, vaster and broader spiritual vision of Man and God and the world.

We must note here that a mystic who is in inner communion with the Divine can do work silently, sitting in the Himalayas, and sending his spiritually charged thoughts into the world, working-out a silent revolution in the thoughts of men, which manifest later in life as outer social or political revolutions.  However, for a more immediate regeneration of religion, a living bridge has to be created between the spiritual core of the religion upheld or kept alive by the mystic and its outer physical, vital and mental dimension made of its church, law book, dogma, priest and the ritual, the traditional paraphernalia of religions which serves the religious needs of the masses.

To build such a bridge requires three factors or conditions.  First is a religious and social environment, which is favourable to or encourages the spiritual endeavour of the mystic and respects or recognizes the spiritual man who is in direct contact with the spirit, (and not the priest or the scholar), as the highest authority, leader and guide of religion.  The religion should not only recognize spirituality as its highest sustaining source but also remain open to all new spiritual experiments, experiences, innovations and intuition of the mystic.  The second condition is that spiritual endeavour should not remain as the isolated endeavour of a few individual spiritual figures but develop into enduring spiritual institutions which preserve, continue and extend the spiritual knowledge and discipline through successive generations of spiritual seekers.  The third factor is the effort of the creative mind to transmit the spiritual inspiration of the mystic to the external or traditional religion and the society or masses at large.  If this work is done by the mystic himself then it has a powerful impact on the religion and the society.

But the mystics are of different kinds.  Many of them are ascetic, reclusive and uncommunicative, lost in the inner word.  Those who have a creative mind may express their experiences through poetry or philosophy or art.  Here comes the role of the leaders and thinkers of traditional religion in the spiritual regeneration of religion.  If they can play a creative role by reaching out to the mystic, both past and present and by preserving, collecting and disseminating the spiritual knowledge, practices and discipline of the mystic and transmitting them to the masses and constantly reform the external religion according to the progressive intuition of the mystic, then they can be of great help not only in the spiritual progress of the religion but also of the community at large.

Islam and Sufism

Let us now see how Sufism fares in its relation with traditional Islamic religion in the light of our above discussion.  The traditional Islam clung more or less obstinately to the revealed doctrines and treated with suspicion or hostility all new ideas or experiences of the Sufis which deviated from the traditional Islamic dogma.  On the other side most of the Sufis never openly revolted or denied the traditional religion.  The attitude of the Sufis to traditional Islam falls into three categories.  Some Sufis, while admitting the sufi emphasis on inner experiences, remained wedded to the fundamentalist dogmas of traditional Islam.  Other Sufis remained aloof and indifferent to the beliefs and practices of traditional religion, sometimes looking at them with an indulgent and patronizing smile.  The third type of Sufis made the attempt to reconcile and synthesis Sufism with traditional Islam and form a bridge between them.  As we have already discussed, the greatest and the most influential among the bridge-builders and synthesizers was Al-Ghazli.  Sufis like Al-Ghazli and his master Junayd, believed that Islamic Law is a good training or preparation for the mystical path and their attempt to include or embrace the traditional religion as an integral part of the Sufi path, helped much in softening the negatives attitudes of traditional Islam to Sufism.

However none of these synthesizers or bridge-builders including Al-Ghazali made any attempt or succeeded much in broadening the mental horizons of the traditional religion by bringing the universal spiritual vision of the earlier Sufis like Jalal-udin-Rumi and Al-Arabi.  Nor were they able to make any creative additions or modifications to the traditional Islamic practices by bringing some of the principles and practices of the inner and higher discipline of Sufism to the Islamic law.  But we cannot blame the Sufis entirely for this because the traditional Islamic religion in general remained hostile to all religious and spiritual innovation and new experiences.  For example a medieval Islamic theologist writes:  “For those who think of innovation in religion, waits the hell-fire.”  And when the Sufi mystic Mansur openly proclaimed his inner experience of identity with God, the authorities of traditional religion reacted viciously, putting him to death.

It was said that after Al-Ghazali’s great synthesis there was mutual conversions between traditionalists and Sufis; many traditional Muslims were converted to Sufism and Sufis became more synthetic and supportive to traditional Islam.  But after Al-Ghazali, there was a slow and steady decline in the spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic vigour and creativity of Sufism.  Most of the Neo-sufi cults and movements which came after Al-Ghazali and followed his synthesis, gravitated more towards the rigid and fundamentalist stance of the traditional religion based on the Islamic Law, rather than to the universalist ethos and inner spiritual discovery of earlier Sufism.

The Future Possibilities

What are the future possibilities, which lie ahead for Sufism.  The main task will be to recover fully the essential message, experience or realizations behind Sufism and the inner discipline of Sufism, make it accessible to all humanity and reestablish it in the terrestrial atmosphere as a living force for the future spiritual evolution of humanity.  To do this Sufism has to not only rediscover its essential spiritual idea and discipline but also give it a mew form, which is in harmony with the present conditions and future needs of human evolution.

When we examine carefully the spiritual teachings of modern seers and prophets, we can see that the spiritual paradigm of the future tends towards a synthesis of the spiritual and the secular or the inner and outer life or we can even say towards a total abolition of these old distinctions.  This means, spirituality of the future will be very different from the old mysticism shutting itself from the world in reclusive monasteries and lost in inner contemplation of the Divine.  The spiritual seeking of the future has to discover the divine in and through life and action.  This cannot be done solely by the earlier methods of mystical contemplation pursued in ascetic seclusion.  We need a more dynamic spiritual discipline by which we can enter into communion with the Divine in the midst of worldly life and action.  One such spiritual discipline is the Karma Yoga of the Indian scripture Bhagavit Gita which we have already mentioned.  But Gita’s Karma Yoga may not be the only way of a dynamic and life-embracing spirituality.  There may be other methods or ways.  A path or a discipline has to be found by which the whole of life and every activity of life, from the highest spiritual to the lowest physical is made into a spiritual sacrament and an offering to the Divine.  These are some of the future challenging facing the spiritual traditions of the past like Sufism.

In our modern age, in the teaching of Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, we can find a creative attempt to recreate Sufism according to the needs of the present and the future.  In his series of talks given in US, between 1918-26 published in fourteen volumes, Hazrat Inayat Khan presents, with a luminous force borne of inner experience and realization, a new vision of Sufism based on universal principles of inner growth of man and which is free from all sectarian or cultist bias.  Asking the question, “What is a Sufi”, Hazrat Inayat Khan says:

“Strictly speaking, everyone who seeks after the ultimate truth is really a Sufi, whether he calls himself that or not—-Hence every person can be called a Sufi either as long as he is seeking to understand life or as soon as he is willing to believe that every human being will also find and touch the same ideal.”

Again raising the question “Is a Sufi Mohammedan? In joining a Sufi community, is one associating with Muslims? Is a Sufi follower of Islam?”  Hazrat answers:

“The word Islam means ‘peace’; this is the Arabic word-The Hebrew word is Salem.  Peace and its attainment in all directions is the goal of the world.  But if the following of Islam is understood to mean the obligatory adherence to a certain rite; if being a Mohammedan mean conforming to certain restrictions, how can the Sufi be placed in that category, seeing that the Sufi is beyond all limitations.  So far from not accepting the Quran, the Sufi recognizes scriptures, which others disregard.  But the Sufi does not allow any special book.  The shining ones such as Attar, Shamse-Tabres, Sadi and Hafiz have expressed their free thought with a complete liberty of language.  To a Sufi revelation is inherent property of every soul.  There is an unceasing flow of the divine stream which has neither beginning nor end.”

Hazrat Inayat Khan conveys a very clear perception of the future spiritual needs of the human race when he says:

“Sufism not only guides those who are religious, mystical or visionary, but the Sufi message gives to the world the religion of the day; and that is to make one’s life a religion, to turn one’s occupation or profession into a religion to make one’s ideal into a religious ideal.  The object of Sufism is the uniting of life and religion, which so far have been kept apart.  When a man goes to church once a week, and devote all the other days of the week to his business, how can he benefit by religion? Therefore the teaching of Sufism is to transform everyday life into a religion, so that every action may bare some spiritual fruit.”

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