Sufism:The Mystic Soul Of Islam-I–M.S. Srinivasan

Key Perspectives: Inner Roots; Three Facets of Sufism; Pearl of Sufi Poetry; Inner Path and Discipline.

Looking from a spiritual perspective, the greatest contribution of Islamic civilization and culture, the most beautiful and fragrant flower in the garden of Islam is perhaps Sufism.  In Sufism, the Islamic religion raises beyond the rigidities of dogmatism and the activities of the intellect towards the rarified heights of poetry, mysticism and ecstasy.  It may not be entirely correct to consider Sufism as part of Islam, because not all Sufis identified themselves with the traditional Islamic religion.  The greatest among the Sufi mystics lived in a universal consciousness soaring far above and beyond the limitation and narrowness of the average religious mind bound by creed and dogma.  For example, the great Persian Sufi Jalal-ud-din-Rumi says, “I am neither Christian nor Jew nor Gabr nor Muslim”.  But still, Sufism flowered in the soil of Islamic civilization and enriched Islamic culture with its exquisite poetry and lofty spirituality.

The Inner Roots

According to historians and scholars of Sufism the mystic path of Sufism rose as a reaction or revolt of some devout and sincere Muslims against the degeneration which has set in the Islamic community after the death of Muhammad especially in the Islamic royalty and their extravagant life-styles.  But this was only the external cause.  The deeper and the inner factor is that in all religions, there are people who are much more inwardly and spiritually advanced than the average majority and who have the inner call of the Spirit.  They will not remain satisfied with the superficial pieties of external religion.  They will follow the inner call and arrive at the inner experience or realization whatever may be the external circumstances or the religion to which they are born.  They may prefer to remain within the folds of the religion in which they are born and express their inner experiences in the dogmas and symbols of their religion; or they may break-away from the religion, become “heretics” and create new philosophies, cults or religions; or they may form into a separate group within the religion but indifferent or neutral to the traditional religion. If the religion or society is favourable to or encourages this inner spiritual quest or has an inborn genius for it, as for example in ancient India, then there will be a large crop of mystics, saints and sages emerging from every part or class of the society and a rich self-expression of their inner discoveries in religion, philosophy, literature and art.  But if the religion or society is hostile to the inner quest then the mystic element will remain subdued and suppressed.  This is the deeper source of mysticism in religion.

The Three Facets of Sufism

The spirit of Sufism, the mystic soul of Islam, is made of three basic features.  Not all Sufis perhaps have these qualities, but early Sufism in its loftier flights, when it touches its highest ideal has this character.  The first major factor, which distinguishes Sufism from the traditional Islam was the emphasis on inner experience or realization; second  was the universal ethos transcending the religious, national and other limiting identities and boundaries; the third was the stress on unconditional love of God culminating in the inner union, absorption or identity with the living presence of God, which is the highest goal of Sufism.  When the Sufi attains this highest ideal his separative individuality disappears or merges with God and God becomes the seer, knower and doer in him or through him.  Interestingly, this Sufi idea was articulated with a lucid clarity in one of the utterances of Muhammad, who was considered by most Sufis as the supreme Sufi or the highest embodiment of the Sufi ideal.  The Prophet of Islam says in Hadith:

“And when I love Him, I am the hearing wherewith He heareth, and the sight wherewith He seeth and the hand wherewith He serveth and the foot whereon He Walketh.”

So while the traditional Islam looked upon the Paradise of God attained through scrupulous obedience to the Islamic Law (Sharia) as the highest ideal of religion, Sufis conceived the highest ideal as an inner union or identity with the living presence of God through an unconditional Love and Surrender to God for Himself or in essence, raising beyond the fear of Hell and the lure of Paradise.

Pearl of Sufi Poetry

Let us now have a look at the treasure-chest of Sufi Poetry and pick out a few pearls that can throw light on the spirit of Sufism.  The first one is from the well-known and celebrated Persian Sufi Jalal-udin-rumi:

“What is to be done O Muslims? For I do not recognize myself

I am neither Christian nor Jew nor Gabr not Muslim

I am not of the East, nor of the West,

Not of the land nor of the Sea

I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire

I am not of the embyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity

I am not of the kingdom of Iraquian, nor of the country of Khorasan

I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of hell

My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless

It is neither body nor soul, I belong to the soul of the Beloved

I have put duality away,

I have seen the two are one

One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call

He is the first, He is the last,

He is the outward, He is the inward

I am intoxicated with Love’s cup, two worlds have passed out of my ken:

The next one is from the Spanish Sufi, Ibn Al-Arabi:

 “My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture of gazelles and a convent for Christian monks.

And a temple for idols and pilgrims kaba and the tables of Tora and the book of Koran

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s Camel take, that is my religion and my faith.”

The third one from Mansur Al-Halaj, who was executed by traditional Islamic authorities for declaring his oneness or identity with God.

“Between me and Thee, there lingers in ‘it is I’ that torments me.

Ah, by Thy grace, take this “I” between us.

I am He who I love, and He whom I love is I

We are two spirit dwelling in one body

If thou seest me, Thou seest Him

And if thou seests Him, thou sees us both.”

Sufism contains some of the most beautiful expressions of self transcending devotion to God like for example the following heart-melting verses of the well-known sufi poetess Rabia:

“O Lord, If I worship Thee for the fear of Hell, throw me into Hell

If I seek Thee for the pleasures of Heaven, banish me from Heaven

But if I seek Thee for Thyself alone never hesitate even for a single moment to reveal Thy vision in my heart”.

Sufism was not an austere and ascetic religion like Buddhism.  It has a scintillating romantic and aesthetic element, like for example the following verses from the sufi poet Jami:

“Each speck of matter did He constitute

A mirror, causing each one to reflect

The beauty of His Visage

From the rose flashed forth His Beauty

And the nightingale beholding it, loved madly.


On the Sun His Beautyshone, and

Straightaway from the wave,

Each shining lock of Leyla’s hair

Attracted Majnu’s heart

Because some ray divine reflected shone

In her fair face.

It was He to Shirin’s who lent

that sweetness

which had power to steal the

heart from Parviz and from Ferhad’s life

His Beauty shines everywhere

And through the forms of earthly

Beauties shines obscured as

Through a veil—

The Inner Path and Discipline

But Sufism is not merely poetry and dance.  It was a great spiritual tradition, where the spiritual knowledge and discipline was preserved and transmitted from Master to disciple.  The inner path or discipline of Sufism was more or less similar to that of eastern spiritual traditions.  As Junayd one of pioneer so sufi mysticism describes the basic principles of the Sufi path.

“Sufism means God makes you to die to yourself and makes you dive in Him.  It is to purify the heart from recurrence of creaturely temptations, to say farewell to all the natural inclinations, to subdue the qualities which belong to human nature, to keep far from the claims of the senses, to adhere to spiritual qualities, to be occupied with that which is eternally the best, to give wise counsel to all people, faithfully to observe the Prophet in respect of the religious law.”

We can see here sufi discipline raising beyond the traditional Islamic synthesis or compromise between religious aspiration and earthly desires towards the higher spiritual level.  There is here an uncomprising insistence on the renunciation of all earthly ego and desire and awakening inwardly to the living presence of God.  This brings us to much debated topic on the influences which shaped Sufism.  We can detect in Sufism strains of Hindu monism, Indian devotional religion, Persian mysticism and Indian yoga.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean Sufism was shaped by these other spiritual influences.  The source of all great spiritual traditions like Sufism is not mental or social but spiritual.  They spring from the inner spiritual experiences of mystics.  Similar inner experiences may lead to a corresponding similarity in the outer expression in thought, imagery or symbolism.  For example when the sufi mystic Mansoor declared “I am God” it was not due to the influence of Hindu monism but he was proclaiming his own inner experience.  So similarity of ideas or symbols between different spiritual traditions need not be entirely due to external influences from other cultures and traditions as most of the scholastic minds believe.  It can also be due to similarity of inner experiences.   We are not denying the possibility of external influences from other cultures and traditions.  Such mutual impact and interchange of ideas, forms and symbols happen very frequently when civilizations, cultures and traditions interact or come into contact with each other.  For example a mystic belonging to a particular religious or spiritual tradition, may borrow concepts or symbols from other traditions if he thinks they can express his inner experiences better.  There can also be borrowings and exchanges of the methods and forms of discipline like meditations.  But in studying spiritual traditions, we must also take into consideration, the realm of inner experiences, which lie beyond, and independent of the outer forms of expression.

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