The Sufi path

The Sufi path

William C. Chittick

More than a thousand years ago, a teacher called Ali the son of Ahmad, who hailed from the town of Bushanj in eastern Persia, complained that few people had any idea of what “Sufism” was all about. “Today,” he said, speaking Arabic, “Sufism is a name without a reality, but it used to be a reality without a name.”

Nowadays in the West, the name has become better known, but its reality has become far more obscure than it ever was in the Islamic world. The name is a useful label, but the reality will not be found in definitions, descriptions, and books. If we do set out looking for the reality, we will always have to keep in mind that the divide between our own times and the times of Ali ibn Ahmad Bushanji – when the various phenomena that came to be named “Sufism” were just beginning to have a shaping effect on Islamic society – is so deep and stark that it may be impossible
to recover anything more than the dimmest trace of it.

One easy way to avoid searching for Sufism’s reality is to replace the name with another name. We often hear that Sufism is “mysticism” or “esoterism” or “spirituality,” usually with the adjective “Islamic” tacked on front. Such labels can provide an orientation, but they are both far too broad and far too narrow to designate the diverse teachings and phenomena that have been identified with Sufism over history. They can never do more than hint at the reality Bushanji had in mind, and they may be more of a hindrance than a help, because they encourage
people to file Sufism away unthinkingly into a convenient category. In order to justify using one of these alternative names, we would have to provide a detailed and careful definition and analysis of the new term, and the three I mentioned are notoriously vague. Even if we could provide an adequate definition, we would still have to explain why it is appropriate for “Sufism.” That would lead to picking and choosing among Sufi and scholarly writings to support our own definition. We may get closer to the reality of our definition, but probably not to the
reality that Bushanji was talking about.

Rather than trying to domesticate Sufism by giving it a more familiar label, we should recognize at the outset that there is something in the Sufi tradition that abhors domestication and definition. It may be helpful to suggest that Sufism has a family resemblance with other traditions – such as Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Yoga, Vedanta, or Zen – but making this connection does not necessarily help us get any closer to Sufism itself.

If we look at the Arabic original of the word Sufism (sufi), we see that the term is already problematic in Islamic civilization. Although it was widely used in several languages, it usually did not have the broad meaning that it has now acquired. Its current high profile owes itself mainly to the writings of Western scholars. As Carl Ernst has pointed out in his excellent introduction to the study of Sufism, the word was given prominence not by the Islamic texts, but rather by British Orientalists, who wanted a term that would refer to various sides of Islamic civilization
that they found attractive and congenial and that would avoid the negative stereotypes associated with the religion of Islam – stereotypes that they themselves had often propagated.1

In the Islamic texts, there is no agreement as to what the word sufi means, and authors commonly argued about both its meaning and its legitimacy. Those who used the word in a positive sense connected it with a broad range of ideas and concepts having to do with achieving human perfection by following the model of the prophet Muhammad. Those who used it in a negative sense associated it with various distortions of Islamic teachings. Most Muslim authors who mentioned the word took a more nuanced stand, neither accepting it wholeheartedly nor condemning it.

The modern studies of Sufism reflect the disagreements over the word found in the primary texts. Scholars do not agree among themselves as to what the name means, and any number of definitions and descriptions can be culled from their studies. I will not add to the confusion by providing my own definition, but I will use the word because it seems less inadequate than the alternatives. My purpose, however, will be to try to get at the reality behind the name, to provide a series of pointers at the moon.

The Islamic context

It is not uncommon to meet people in the West who are familiar with certain Sufi teachings and practices but who are ignorant of, or would deny, anything more than an accidental relationship between Sufism and Islam. There are books that enthusiastically acclaim Sufism as an exalted wellspring of spirituality and beauty, while considering Islam, if it is mentioned at all, in terms of the stereotypes that have haunted the West since the Middle Ages. This commonly encountered view of Sufism has been strengthened by the reaction of many modern-day Muslims against it. The great historian of Islamic civilization, H. A. R. Gibb, pointed out fifty years ago that such Muslims look upon Sufism either as a “survival of superstitions” and “cultural backwardness” or as a deviation from “true Islam.” Gibb was sufficiently sensitive to Sufism’s reality to perceive that such attitudes seem bent on “eliminating the expression of authentic religious experience” from the Islamic world.2

In short, many people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, consider “Sufism” as alien to “Islam,” however these two terms are defined. But, from the first appearance of teachers who came to be designated as Sufis in the ninth century (the third Islamic century), they have always claimed to speak for the heart and marrow of the Islamic tradition. My first task here is to try to shed some light on their point of view. What role did they accord Sufism within Islam? This question is not as irrelevant today as some people might think, because most of those who now speak for the Sufi tradition – at least within the Islamic world itself – have kept the same understanding.

In the early texts, scores of definitions were offered for the words “Sufi” and “Sufism,” just as scores of definitions were offered for numerous other technical terms associated with the same teachers.3 Although it would be possible to begin with one or more of these definitions, it may be more useful simply to suggest that Gibb is on the right track when he implies that Sufism is equivalent to “authentic religious experience.” In other words, the early Sufi teachers held that they spoke for the animating spirit of the Islamic tradition. From their point of view, wherever this spirit flourishes, Islam is alive to its own spiritual and moral ideals, but to the extent that it languishes, Islam becomes desiccated and sterile, if it survives at all. This identification of Sufism with Islam’s spirit is prefigured in a famous saying of the Prophet known as the “Hadith of Gabriel.” Reflecting on the content of this saying can help us situate Sufism’s reality in relation to other realities that were given names over the course of Islamic history.

According to this hadith, the Prophet and a few of his companions were sitting together when a man appeared and asked him several questions. When the man departed, the Prophet told his companions that this had been the angel Gabriel, who had come to teach them their religion (din). As outlined by Gabriel’s questions and the Prophet’s answers, the religion of Islam can be understood to have three basic dimensions. Those familiar with the Koran, the wellspring of Islamic teachings, will recognize these three as constant Koranic themes, though nowhere does the Koran provide such a clear and succinct overview. The three are “submission” (islam), “faith” (iman), and “doing the beautiful” (ihsan).4

The Prophet defined submission as “to bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His messenger, to perform the daily prayers, to pay the alms tax, to fast during Ramadan, and to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca if you can find the means to do so.” He said that faith is “to have faith in God, His angels, His scriptures, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to have faith in the measuring out, both the good of it and the evil of it.” He said that doing the beautiful is to “worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.”

The first two categories, “submission” and “faith,” are familiar to all students of Islam. They correspond to the religion’s “Five Pillars” and its “three principles,” or to practice and belief, or to the Sharia (the revealed law) and the creedal teachings. The “Five Pillars” are voicing the testimony of faith, doing the daily prayers, paying the alms tax, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca. The “three principles” are the assertion of divine unity (tawhid), prophecy, and eschatology. What needs to be noticed is that the third category mentioned in the hadith – “doing the beautiful” – is just as important for the Prophet’s definition as the other two, but its meaning is not nearly as clear.

“Doing the beautiful” is not discussed by the most vocal of the scholars who speak for Islam, that is, the jurists ( fuquha’). By self-definition they limit their field of vision to the Sharia, which defines the Five Pillars and the other practices that Muslims need to perform. Nor is doing the beautiful discussed by a second influential group of scholars, the theologians (mutakallimun), who are the experts in the science of Kalam, or dogmatic theology. Their concern is to articulate and defend creedal teachings, which establish and explain the meaning of the three principles. Neither of these schools of thought has the interest or the competence – qua jurists and theologians – to deal with doing the beautiful, so we would be wasting our time if we read their books looking for an explanation. It is the Sufis who take doing the beautiful as their own special domain.

In order to understand why the great Sufi teachers considered themselves genuine Muslims deeply involved with everything that God and Muhammad have asked from human beings, we need to grasp the logic of this tripartite division of the Islamic tradition and the special role played by doing the beautiful.

On the most external level, Islam is a religion that tells people what to do and what not to do. Right and wrong practices are delineated and codified by the Sharia, which is a compendium of systematic law based squarely on Koranic teachings and prophetic practice, but adjusted and refined by generations of scholars. The Sharia can be likened to Islam’s “body,” because it designates proper activities, all of which are performed by the body, and because it supports the tradition’s life and awareness.

On a deeper level, Islam is a religion that teaches people how to understand the world and themselves. This second dimension corresponds to the mind. It has traditionally been called “faith,” because its points of orientation are the objects to which faith attaches – God, the angels, the scriptures, the prophets, and so on. These are mentioned constantly in the Koran and the Hadith, and investigation of their nature and reality became the domain of various disciplines, such as Kalam, philosophy, and theoretical Sufism. Any serious attempt to investigate these objects globally cannot fail to investigate the deepest questions of human concern. The great philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians of Islam, who have been studied and admired by many Western historians, were trained in this dimension of the religion. So also, the most famous of the Sufis were thoroughly grounded in the theoretical knowledge of the objects of faith.

On the deepest level, Islam is a religion that teaches people how to transform themselves so that they may come into harmony with the ground of all being. Neither activity nor understanding, nor both together, are humanly sufficient. Activity and understanding need to be focused in such a way that they bring about human goodness and perfection. This goodness is inherent and intrinsic to the original human disposition (fitra), created in God’s image. If the first dimension of Islam keeps in view the activities that must be performed because of our relational situation with God and others, and the second our understanding of self and others, the third points the way to achieving nearness to God. For those with any sensitivity to the religious life, the various terms that are employed in discussing the focus of this third dimension are immediately recognizable as the heart of religion. These include sincerity, love, virtue, and perfection.

Three domains of faith

The Hadith of Gabriel talks about iman or “faith” in terms of its objects, and these specify points of reference that are needed to understand the nature of things. In another hadith, the Prophet spoke about the meaning of the word iman itself. “Faith,” he said, “is to acknowledge with the heart, to voice with the tongue, and to act with the limbs.”5 This hadith suggests that human beings are compounded of three domains ranked in a clear hierarchy – heart or inmost awareness, tongue or articulation of understanding, and limbs or bodily parts. These three domains are distinct, yet thoroughly intertwined. Inasmuch as they are distinct, they came to be studied by different disciplines and judged by different standards.

“Acting with the limbs,” or putting faith into practice, is the domain of jurisprudence. It is here that people “submit” to God’s will by obeying the commands set down in the Sharia.

“Voicing with the tongue” is the realm of expressing faith through articulated self-awareness, or rational speech. Human beings are differentiated from other animals precisely by their power of speech, which expresses and conveys the awareness hidden in the depths of the heart. As a domain of learning, voicing faith belonged to those Muslim scholars who investigated the best ways to understand God, the universe, and the human soul.

Finally, “acknowledging with the heart” is to recognize the truth and reality of faith’s objects in the deepest realm of human awareness. The “heart” in Koranic terms is the center of life, consciousness, intelligence, and intentionality. The heart is aware and conscious before the mind articulates thought, just as it is alive before the body acts. Faith’s inmost core is found only in the heart. The Prophet seems to be referring to this core when he says, “Faith is a light that God casts into the heart of whomsoever He will.”

The Prophet’s tripartite definition of faith designates the same three domains as the Hadith of Gabriel – body, tongue, and heart; or activity, thought, and awareness. The body’s realm is defined by the Sharia, the tongue’s realm is expressed in theology (in its various forms, not simply Kalam), and the heart’s realm is associated with doing the beautiful in the depths of the soul. To achieve the last, the heart must be rooted in awareness of truth and reality in a pre-cognitive manner. Beautiful acts must well up from the depths of the heart spontaneously, before mental articulation and physical activity. More will be said about what this implies as we go along. This is only the first finger pointing at the moon.

In short, the Islamic tradition recognizes three basic domains of religiosity – body, tongue, and the depths of the heart. These are the domains of right doing, right thinking, and right seeing. The last is an inner awareness of the reality of things that is inseparable from our mode of being in the world. The three realms can also be called perfection of acts, perfection of understanding, and perfection of self. All three are understood and conceptualized as ideals that must be realized in order to live up to the potentialities that were given to human beings when God created Adam in His own image.

These three domains were intensely scrutinized by serious Muslims – those who came to be known as the Muslim “scholars” (ulama’). The domain of right activity was the specialty of jurists, that of right thinking the specialty of theologians, and that of right seeing the specialty of Sufis. “O God,” the Sufis like to quote the Prophet as saying, “show us things as they are.” One does not see things as they are with the eyes or the mind, but rather with the core of the heart. From the heart, right seeing will then radiate forth and permeate every pore of the body, determining thought and activity.

The Shahadah

In this brief outline of the basics of Islam, it is important to notice the primary place accorded to the dual Shahadah or “testimony of faith.” This is to bear witness that “There is no god but God” and that “Muhammad is His messenger.” The Shahadah provides the key to understanding the Islamic perspective in all domains.

In the definition of “submission,” the Shahadah is listed as the first required act of Muslims. By verbally acknowledging the reality of God and the prophetic role of Muhammad, one makes the other four pillars and the Sharia incumbent upon oneself.

The Shahadah also defines the content of faith, whose primary element is faith in God. The nature of the God in whom Muslims have faith is set down briefly by the first Shahadah, while all the objects of faith are conceptualized in terms of the concomitants of the second Shahadah, which designates the domain of the message and the messenger.

Finally, it is impossible to understand what “doing the beautiful” entails unless we know what human beings are, and this knowledge also wells up from the Shahadah. To know the reality of human beings is to know how God impinges on the human situation, because the human image of God cannot be understood apart from the object that it reflects. Human goodness and perfection can be achieved only in terms of God on the one hand and those who have already achieved it on the other, and these are the prophets, Muhammad in particular. This achievement is to actualize the divine image inherent in the soul, and this depends upon putting the Shahadah into practice.

All three dimensions of Islam have been present wherever there have been Muslims. People cannot take their religion seriously without engaging their bodies, their minds, and their hearts; or their activity, their thinking, and their being. But these dimensions became historically differentiated in many forms, the diversity of which has all sorts of causes, about which historians have written no end of books. After all, we are talking about how Muslims practice their religion, how they conceptualize their faith and their understanding of things, and how they express their quest to be near to God. We are talking about various branches of Islamic law and institutions of government, diverse schools of thought investigating the nature of God and the human soul, and multifarious organizations that guide people on the path of spiritual aspiration and give focus to their vastly different experiences of God’s presence.

These diverse expressions of Islam, which have undergone tremendous historical and regional variation, have been given many names over Islamic history. The whole situation has become much more complex because of the investigations of modern scholars, who have had their own programs, agendas, and goals and who have employed diverse interpretative schemes in their attempts to make sense of Islamic history in contemporary terms.

In short, Islam, like any full-blown religion, embraces the whole range of human activities and concerns, and the Islamic approach to these has become manifest in a great variety of forms and institutions over history. In contrast to contemporary stereotypes, Islam has a special affinity for diversity of expression. Part of this has to do with the fact that there is no centralized authority comparable to a priesthood or the Catholic church. Instead, Islamic civilization has produced a variety of institutional forms that have come and gone, and all of them have transmitted and inculcated practice, understanding, and the interior life.

As Islam gradually assumed its specific historical forms through the codification of various teachings and practices and the establishment of social institutions, the three dimensions designated by the Hadith of Gabriel came to be reflected within society as relatively distinct, though thoroughly interrelated, aspects of Islamic civilization. However, doing the beautiful remained an intangible inner sanctum. On the individual level, this third dimension has been found in the heart of all Muslims who practice their religion for God’s sake alone. In the social sphere it has been given its clearest expression in the life of those whom I would like to call the “Sufis,” even though many who claimed this label for themselves did not live up to the ideal, and many who did in fact live up to it did not want the name.

Sufism in this understanding can be viewed as an invisible spiritual presence that animates all authentic expressions of Islam. The various historical forms in which it has appeared serve to demonstrate that this dimension of the religion has remained an ideal of fundamental importance. Nonetheless, the difficulty of achieving human perfection has meant that the individuals and institutions historically connected with the name cannot necessarily be held up as expressions of Sufism’s true nature. The Sufis themselves have always been aware of the danger of degeneration and corruption inherent in attempting to adapt social institutions to ideals that can only be fully actualized by rare individuals. When Bushanji said that Sufism is now a name without a reality, he was referring to these inadequate attempts to codify and institutionalize the heart of the tradition.

Mercy and wrath

Sufi teachers have frequently explained Sufism’s role in the context of tawhid, the assertion of God’s unity that is given its most succinct expression in the first Shahadah, la ilaha illa Allah “(There is) no god but God.” By creating the universe, God causes multiplicity to appear from unity. He displays the potentialities of existence implied by His own “names and attributes” (asma’ wa sifat) in an infinite universe. The creatures of this universe make manifest the nature of their Creator. The tremendous diversity of creation discloses the unlimitedness of God’s creative power. All opposition and strife express the boundless range of God’s perfections and the fact that the richness of the divine reality can only appear outside of itself in a domain of infinite differentiation and dispersion. The contrasting and conflicting things of the world can never achieve the peace and stillness of the divine, which alone is the coincidence of opposites.

Many Sufis reduce the basic archetypes for all plurality and multiplicity to two divine attributes – beauty and majesty, or mercy and wrath, or gentleness and severity. The created traces of mercy and wrath can be pictured in terms of the yin-yang symbol. Just as there is no pure yin or pure yang (as represented by the black dot in the white half and the white dot in the black half), so also there is no pure mercy or pure wrath in the created domain. Wherever mercy displays its signs and traces within creation, there will also be manifestations of wrath, and vice versa. In the world as we experience it, certain things display the attribute of wrath more directly, and others are dominated by mercy. In general, things pertaining to the external and material realms tend to manifest wrath, whereas the closer we move to the spiritual world, the closer we approach pure mercy. As Rumi puts it, “This world is the house of God’s severity,”6 which is to say that the other world is the house of God’s gentleness and mercy.

Given that God’s wrath is associated with this world’s distance from God, it is also closely associated with the Sharia, which concerns itself with the outermost human domain, that of bodily activity. However, the wrath that shows its face in the Sharia derives from God’s mercy and leads back to it. Although mercy and wrath have a yin-yang sort of relationship in this world, the two do not have equal weight with God. A famous prophetic saying tells us that God’s mercy takes precedence over His wrath, which is to say that God’s essential nature is mercy and gentleness, and that wrath and severity pertain to the domain of created things. The rather stern and forbidding face of the Sharia, which demands that people follow its commandments or taste the chastisement of hell, displays God’s majesty and severity, but lurking beneath its surface is the promise of the precedent mercy. All things came forth from mercy, and all will return to mercy in the end.

Once we see the parallel between the Sharia and the divine majesty and wrath, it is easy to discern a relationship between the spiritual perfection that is sought by the Sufis and the divine mercy, gentleness, and beauty. Here love, central to the expression of Sufi teachings, also enters the picture. Mercy’s connection with love is especially obvious on the level of theology, because both mercy and love are said to be the cause of creation. According to the great Sufi theoretician Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), the divine mercy that gives rise to the universe is existence itself. The very act of bringing things into existence is an act of gentleness and kindness. The same point is made in terms of love in a saying constantly quoted in Sufi texts: “I was a Hidden Treasure,” God says, “so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures that I might be known.”

God’s mercy and love give rise to the world, but there is an important difference between the two attributes. Mercy flows in one direction, from God to the world, but love moves in both directions. People can love God, but they cannot have mercy upon Him, only upon other creatures. When Sufis say that God’s love for creation gives existence to the universe, they quickly add that the corresponding human love for God closes the gap between God and His creatures. Human love makes itself known in sincerity of devotion to the One God. The greater the love, the greater the degree of participation in the divine image, and the greater the degree of human perfection. Hence “love” is often taken as a synonym for doing the beautiful.

The differing theoretical and practical emphases of Islam’s three dimensions help explain why Westerners can be simultaneously attracted by Sufism and repelled by “Islam.” Such people typically have no knowledge of Islam except the stereotypes that have been passed down from the Middle Ages, or they identify Islam with the Sharia, or with various political and social movements among contemporary Muslims. To the extent that they are aware of the Sharia and the more external aspects of Islamic life and civilization, they are repelled by the sternness and severity of the divine wrath. In contrast, Sufism – whose characteristic expressions are found in beauty, love, poetry, and music – illustrates the dimension of divine beauty and mercy. When Gibb writes that “the aesthetic element in Sufism plays a part which can hardly be overemphasized in its later expression,” 7 he is pointing to the appreciation of beauty and love that is a hallmark of the Sufi tradition.

When Westerners take their first look at Islam, they often feel as if they have been taken into a desert and set down outside the austere walls of a city that smells of death. In contrast, when they are drawn to Sufism, they enter the delightful gardens that are hidden by the walls surrounding traditional Muslim houses. In a living Islamic community, the walls protect the garden from the desert winds and the eyes of strangers, but the garden and the human warmth inside the walls are the reason for the walls’ existence.

Sufi theory

The Sufi view of reality derives from the Koran and the Hadith, but it has been amplified and adapted by generations of Sufi teachers and sages. It provides a map of the cosmos that allows people to understand their situation in respect to God. It explains both what human beings are, and what they should aspire to be. It sets down a practice that can lead people from their actual situation to the final goal of human life, or from imperfection to perfection.

The first Shahadah – “(There is) no god but God” – discerns between the Real and the unreal, or between the Absolute and the relative, or between God and “everything other than God,” which is the universe. Traditionally the Shahadah is said to be divided into two halves, the negation (“no god”) and the affirmation (“but God”). The first half denies the inherent reality of the world and the self. The second half affirms the ultimacy of the divine reality. The Shahadah means that there is “no creator but God,” “none merciful but God,” “none knowing but God.” In sum, it means that there is “no reality but God” and that all the so-called realities of our experience are secondary and derivative.

Numerous Koranic verses and hadiths reiterate the basic discernment contained in the Shahadah and explain its ramifications. One of the most often cited in Sufi texts is the verse, “Everything is perishing but His face” (28:88). As one of the Sufi masters explains,

God did not say, “will perish,” for He wanted it known that the existence of all things is perishing in His Being today. Only those still veiled [from the reality of things] postpone the observance of this until tomorrow.8

God’s reality is such that nothing can stand up to it. His unique possession of all that is real and all that provides reality to “others” means that the others are in fact nonexistent. This is how the Sufis interpret the saying of the Prophet, “God was, and nothing was with Him.” The great Sufi shaykh Junayd (d. 910) added, “And He is now as He was.” Only God is, and everything that appears to exist along with Him has no true existence. Ibn Arabi remarked that there was really no need for Junayd to add the clarification, because the verb “was” in reference to the Eternal denotes all tenses. “God was,” “God is,” and “God will be” all have the same meaning.9

The primary discernment between the Real and the unreal, or between God and the world, is followed by a secondary discernment among the realities of the world. The second Shahadah tells us that “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It follows that he is a clear, designated manifestation of the One Real. In other words, he represents God more directly than other creatures. He and the Koran for which he is the vehicle are guiding lights in the darkness of unreal things. More generally, all prophets have been sent to reveal God’s guidance and mercy to human beings, so revelation plays a special role in human becoming. Without the revealed guidance, people can only wander in ignorance and illusion, immersed in the unreal things that veil them from the truth.

On closer examination, the distinction between divine revelation and all that does not reveal God is much more subtle than at first appears. The Koran calls its own verses and other divine revelations “signs” (ayat), and it employs the same word to refer to the things of the universe. If the Koran is God’s Book, displaying His “signs,” so also the universe is God’s Book announcing His revelations. It follows that the world and everything within it can be viewed from two points of view. In one respect, all things are “other than God” and hence unreal. In another respect, all things are “signs” of God and therefore real in some degree. Here then we have a further discernment of fundamental importance – between phenomena as “signs” and phenomena as “veils.”

Sufis explain the distinction between signs and veils employing many sets of terms. According to one formulation, each existent thing can be said to have two faces. These two faces are the “eastern face” and the “western face.” If we look at the western face of things, we find no trace of the sun, since it has set. If we look at the eastern face of the same things, we see the sun shining in its full glory. Everything displays both faces at the same time, but the vast majority of people see only the western face. They have no awareness that everything is a sign of God in which He is disclosing His own reality. For them, the Koranic verse, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115), is a dead letter. In contrast, the prophets and the great Sufis see the eastern face. They witness God in everything. In their case. God has answered the prayer, “Show us things as they are.” For them, all things are truly and actually signs of God.10

Islamic anthropology pictures human beings as the only creatures who have freely chosen God over the world, the Real over the unreal, the East over the West. In the Koran, this free choosing of God is called the “Trust.” “We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to carry it and were afraid of it; and human beings carried it.” But, the verse concludes, they are “very ignorant, great wrongdoers” (33:72). This suggests that they have failed to live up to their freely chosen responsibilities.

Many would object that they have never made any such choice. The Sufis typically respond that the objection is contradictory. Every time we undertake the slightest volitional act, we have freely accepted our human condition as a given. To be human is to possess a degree of freedom, and to make choices is to put oneself in the position of having to answer for the choices. Rumi provides many entertaining arguments to show that attempts to shuck off responsibility are always self-serving. People try to do so only when they are confronted with a choice that they do not want to make. Otherwise, every time they see a course of action that suits their fancy, they freely enter into it, knowing all the while that their choices will have consequences.

Like a hypocrite, you offer your excuses –

“I’m so busy providing for wife and children,

“I don’t have time to scratch my head.

How could I have time to practice religion? . . .

“I cannot escape from feeding my family,

I must seek lawful earnings tooth and nail.”. . .

You have an escape from God – but not from food.

You have an escape from religion – but not from idols.11


To carry the Trust people must follow the guidance of those who have already carried it, and such people are known as “prophets.” More specifically, to be Muslim and Sufi, one submits to God by acknowledging the truth of the Shahadah, by having faith in God and in the perfectibility of human nature as taught in the Koran, and by living the spiritual virtues that are embodied in Muhammad and the great exemplars of the tradition.

In short, the initial discernment between God and the world leads to two secondary discernments, both expressed at least implicitly in the statement, “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” People need to discern between revelation and human knowledge, or between the Koran and merely human attempts to understand. They also need to discern between eastern faces and western faces, or between signs and veils. Once they make the discernments, they need to put them into practice. The religious teachings and institutions provide the practical means to choose eastern faces over western faces.

In questions of discernment, the difference between the general Islamic viewpoint and the specifically Sufi perspective does not lie in principles, but rather in a certain self-conscious application of principles. The Sufis do not consider it sufficient for people to have faith and to submit themselves to the Sharia if they also have the capacity of deepening their understandings, purifying their hearts, and doing what is beautiful. In order to reach human perfection, it is not enough to imitate others and follow religion blindly (taqlid). Rather, one must achieve a total awareness of the principles and the spirit that animate the religion, or, as the Sufis express it, one must realize the Real Itself (tahaqquq). On the theoretical level, the Shahadah becomes a concrete expression of the absolute reality of God, a sword that cuts away the illusory from the Real. On the practical level, the guidelines set down by the Sharia perform the same function, but here Sufis do not accept these guidelines “because they must,” but because of their awareness that these play a basic role in allowing human beings to act in accordance with revealed truth and avoid error.

Sufi practice

If Sufism is an appropriate name for doing what is beautiful and striving after spiritual perfection, then it is built on two foundations – islam or submission to God (the practice of the Sharia and the prophetic model) and iman or faith (acceptance of basic Islamic teachings concerning God, prophecy, and the Last Day). Once seekers have gained sufficient grounding in these two dimensions, they can focus their efforts on “worshiping God as if they see Him.” Eventually, sincerity and love may take them to the place where the “as if” ceases to apply. In other words, they will worship Him while seeing Him. An often cited model here is the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, who said, “I would not worship a Lord whom I do not see.”

Like Sufi faith, Sufi practice is rooted in the Shahadah. Hence it combines two complementary perspectives – negation and affirmation, or “no god” and “but God.” The “god” or false reality that needs to be negated is the individual self or ego, the face turned toward the west and oblivious of the east. As long as self-awareness is dominated by the ego, people will not be able to see the sun’s light. Instead, they will perceive a multitude of shadows, false realities, and “idols.” In Rumi’s words, “The mother of all idols is your own ego.”12

The actual path of Sufism entails a process of inner transformation whereby the powers of the soul are turned toward God. Sufism adds to the strictly Shariite practices many devotional and spiritual exercises. The most important of these, around which the others are ranged as so many auxiliary means, is the “remembrance” (dhikr) of God, which the Koran commands people to perform in many verses. Remembrance was taught by the Prophet to his close companions in the specific forms that make up the kernel of Sufi discipline.

The “normal” human situation is one of forgetfulness and heedlessness. The least precondition for human perfection is to recognize one’s own imperfection and to remember the perfection of the one Reality. But in order to remember the Real in Its fullness, seekers must forget the unreal, which is the western face of their own selves and the world.

In the Koran and in Islamic usage in general, the command to “remember” God also means to “mention” God, so the actual means of remembering God is the mention of God’s name (or names). The name is considered to be the direct manifestation of the divine on the human level. Through a gradual process of transformation, the name fills up the mind and consciousness, leaving no room for remembrance of others. The basic insight here is that awareness is the fundamental reality of human nature, and its content determines who we are. As Rumi puts it,

You are your thought, brother,

the rest of you is bones and fiber.

If you think of roses, you are a rosegarden,

if you think of thorns, you’re fuel for the furnace.13

Constant focus on God leads eventually, God willing, to the goal of the Sufi path, which is “union” with God, or the full realization of human perfection, or actualization of the divine image in which human beings were created. Once perfection is achieved, the separation between the divine and the human that was envisaged in the original discernment has been overcome, at least from a certain point of view. The west has disappeared because the Sun has risen.

Having traversed the path, the Sufis can say with Hallaj (d. 922), “I am the Real,” that is, “I am God.” This will be no baseless claim, for they will simply be seeing the reality of their own situation. Or rather, these words will be nothing but the Sun showing its rays. This is the final realization of the initial discernment, the fact that “God is, and nothing is with Him.” Illusory selfhood has been negated and God alone has been affirmed. “No god” has taken away all impermanent things, and “but God” has left that which truly is. As Rumi puts it,

When Hallaj’s love for God reached its utmost limit, he became
his own enemy and he naughted himself. He said, “I am the
Real,” that is, “I have been annihilated; the Real remains,
nothing else.” This is extreme humility and the utmost limit of
servanthood. It means, “He alone is.” To make a false claim and
to be proud is to say, “You are God and I am the servant.” In
this way you are affirming your own existence, and duality is
the necessary result. If you say, “He is the Real,” that too is
duality, for there cannot be a “He” without an “I.” Hence the
Real said, “I am the Real.” Other than He, nothing else
existed. Hallaj had been annihilated, so those were the words of
the Real.14

1. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (Boston: Shambhala,1997).
2. “The Structure of Religious Thought in Islam” (1948), reprinted in Gibb, Studies on the Civilization of Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 218.
3. For a good selection of these definitions, see J. Nurbakhsh, Sufism: Meaning, Knowledge, and Unity (New York: Khaniqahi-Nimatullahi Publications, 1981), pp. 16–41.
4. For a detailed study of the Islamic tradition based on this ancient division into three dimensions, see Sachiko Murata and W. C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994).
5. The Arabic text reads al-tasdiq bi’l-janan wa’l-qawl bi’l-lisan wa’lamal bi’l-arkan.
6. Mathnawi, edited by R. A. Nicholson (London: Luzac, 1925–40), vol. VI, verse 1890.
7. “The Structure of Religious Thought,” p. 211.
8. Izz ad-Din Kashani (d. 1334–35), Misbah al-hidayah, edited by J. Huma’i (Tehran: Chapkhana-yi Majlis, 1325/1946), p. 22.
9. W. C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 393, note 13. Hereafter, this book will be cited as SPK.
10. The “eastern” and “western” faces of things are mentioned by Shabistari in his famous poem Gulshan-i raz (“The Rosegarden of Mystery”) and discussed in some detail by Lahiji (d. 1506) in his
commentary, Sharh-i Gulshan-i raz, edited by M. R. B. Khaliqi and Iffat Karbasi (Tehran: Intisharat-i Zuwwar, 1371/1992), pp. 117–18.
11. Mathnawi II, 3067–68, 3071, 3073. For a few of Rumi’s arguments, see W. C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983), pp. 113–18. Hereafter, this work will be cited as SPL.
12. Mathnawi I, 772.
13. Mathnawi II, 277–8; SPL 96.
14. Rumi, Fihi ma fihi, edited by B. Furuzanfar (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1348/1969), p. 193; SPL 191–2.