Sufism retraced

Sufism, translated as Tasawwaf in Arabic, is taken to mean the spiritual science of living. Hazrat Ali r.a , is reported to have said that Tasawwaf is an acronym of four letters: TSWF. Together the word TSWF comprises of the twelve principles of Sufism.

T, the first letter stands for the three practices of "tark" abandonment, "tubah" repentance, and taqa "virtue". S, the second letter stands for another three qualities i.e "sabr" patience, "sidq" truthfulness, and "safa" purity. W, the third letter stands for "wud" love, "wird" remembrance, and "vafa" sincerity. F, the final letter represents another three attributes. "Fard" solitude, "faqr" poverty, and "fana" annihilation.

This sums up the essence of the great spiritual science or teaching that we refer to as Sufism. Through annihilation of the lower self or "nafs", man aspires to the sublimity of the Spirit or "ruh", which is the Command of Allah that He blew into man. {definition of ruh as given in the Quran}.

Allah commands man to return to Him, by the use of the word "irji" in the Quran. This return is apparent as well as hidden and inward. The apparent return is the physical one when one dies and departs from the visible world of manifestation. The inward return, however, takes place while one is still living in the physical dimension. Through physical mujahida or exertion we make the journey back to our Lord of Power. Man is the receptacle of the Divine spark which he contains within himself, since "Allah breathed into him of His Spirit." [Quran]. Sufism enables man to rediscover this spark within himself. According to historical sources, Sufism began as an organized movement in the second century of Islam. Itís seeds of development were,however, sown at the very time of the advent of Islam. Sufism in the Islamic context, has itís origin primarily in the Quran and the religious experience of the Prophet Muhammad [p.b.u.h]. The preliminary signs of revelation came to him [p.b.u.h] in the form of visions, and the Prophet [p.b.u.h] took to increasing periods of solitude and retreat, until the Book of his Heart opened to the Inscription of the Divine Pen.

Some of the Quranic verses which support the sufi doctrine are : "We [God] are closer to him [man] than his jugular vein." Physical proximity being impossible owing to His transcendence, it obviously has a spiritual and inward import.

At another place the Quran says "Say, surely we belong to God and to Him do we return." Again this belonging and returning forms the very basis of our spiritual journeying.

When the Quran says "He is the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden", it is testifying to the immanence of Allah. Allah is everywhere, He is Omnipresent and Everliving. The Quran also reads "and whichsoever way you turn is the Face of Allah", thereby proclaiming His All-Pervading existence. The reality is that there is no reality but Allah.

In 632 a .d, the year of hijra, forty five Meccan men joined themselves to as many in Medina and took an oath of fidelity to the Prophetís teachings, forming the first Muslim fraternity. This was intended to establish communal property and reform through daily religious, spiritual practices. The members of the newly-found fraternity wore rough woolen clothes denoting their "faqr" poverty, and sincerity, after the practice of their master Prophet Muhammad [p.b.u.h]. These companions of the Prophet [p.b.u.h] who were a group of exceptionally devout men, thus earned the appellation sufi owing to "suf" meaning coarse, woolen cloth. This is a simple meaning of the word inferred from the dressing culture of these early devotees. There are other interpretations that include the meaning wisdom, coming from the Greek word "soph". Purity is inferred from the root word saf of safiyya. Yet another derivation comes from the word "saff" as from line and thus refers to the Sufis as the ahle-saff or the people who prayed in a line directly behind the Prophet [p.b.u.h]. During the time of the Prophet [p.b.u.h] there was a special platform in the mosque at Medina where the Prophet [p.b.u.h] sat and discoursed with his close companions. This was the first gathering place of the Sufis.

Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, established assemblies where vows were taken and religious exercises practiced. In 657 a.d, Hazrat Uwais Qarni established his sufi order. The first Khanqah or House of Remebrance, was built by a Syrian in 780 a.d, to house all Sufis who followed the way of the Prophet Muhammad [p.b.u.h]. It was supposed to be a sanctuary for the weary dervish travelers and the seekers of Truth.

According to Shaykh Fadlallah Haeri, in his book "The Elements of Sufism", the rise of Sufism as an organized movement began as a response to the increasing distortions and misrepresentations of Islamic teachings, especially as perpetrated by the leadership of the time. Rulers or kings used the name of Islam to justify their own ends, conveniently discarding those aspects of itís teachings which did not fit their purposes. Sincere Muslims throughout the expanding Muslim world embarked upon a revival and renewal of religious thought and practice. They were eager to restore and preserve the originality of the great Prophet Muhammadís message. These individuals who were fired by the inner light of awakening and fulfillment, laid the foundations of sufi institutions. They worked to cleanse the Muslim world of the dross that it had begun to collect.

The sufi movement in Islam is parallel to movements such as Kabbalism in Judaism, Gnosticism in Christianity, and the advent of Buddhism with regard to Hinduism. Also as with other spiritual movements we do find instances of Sufis going to extremes and distorting the multi-dimensional reality of Islam. Excess esotericism or the disregard of the balanced Prophetic way are examples of this phenomenon. Sufis that originated in the expanding Islamic state, are today found everywhere from Australia to America.

The beginnings of Sufism are also linked to the emergence of one Abu Muslim Khorasani, committed to establishing justice and the true way of Islam. It started as a popular revolutionary movement against the Umayyads in favour of the Hashemites. However, in 749, when the Umayyad dynasty was brought to an end,the Abbasids came to power on the pretext of being related to the Prophet [p.b.u.h]. Thus, in 750, another dynastic rulership was established. Only two centuries after the advent of Islam, Muslim society had plunged into fratricide, the politics of power struggles and luxury and opulence became the secretly worshipped gods of desire. The Abbasid kings who called themselves Muslims, yet distorted the Muhammadan model. In these conditions of blatant political and social contradictions, the Sufis emerged as a body of thoughtful, pious Muslims, distinguished from the ruling party and itís worldly supporters. These muslims who were aware of the true Prophetic teachings, being unable to change the existing situation, started devoting their lives to prayers and discipline of inner purification. Imam Zaynul Abidin, the son of Imam Husayn, is one of many such examples. The term imam or Shaykh began to be used for a qualified and recognized spiritual leader. Each master in his lifetime confirmed the qualifications and naming of his successor. The title of Shaykh was thus only conferred by a recognized Shaykh upon another.

The Sufis addressed themselves to manís inner problems and developed the science of the "self". The sufi spiritual masters did not separate the outer from the inner. They were men of unity. In other words they believed that outer purity inadvertently led to inner cleansing, and when the inner self is purified, the outer world too benefits from the light of this purity. Therefore, the interdependence of Shariat and Tariqat. Shariat is the outer law of Islam and Tariqat is itís inward search. The Sufis believed that all needs are basically the manifestations of the one real need, which is that of knowing Allah.

Likewise the one who is seeking the world is actually seeking a spiritual one, while himself being unaware of it.Human beings are intrinsically in need of security. This security is the inner contentment and certainty that you acquire once you know Allah.

These were the laws of the self that were taught, discussed and practiced in sufi circles. The Sufis never aspired to bring any new teaching, but simply tried to keep the spirit of Islam alive by expounding itís full meaning and inner transmission.

Going back to the spread of the movement, the political power of the Muslims began waning by 756 a.d, when Muslim Spain was conquered. Power struggles and infighting were eating up the very fabric of socio-political organization. In the east there was the Abbasid decadence and internal division. In Egypt the Fatimids were politically weak. The sufi movement reached itís zenith in the tenth century. Balkh, Bukhara, Baghdad, Khorasan, Cairo and Mecca all held great spiritual teachers and awakened souls. All the major works and treatises of Sufism were documented by the spiritual masters to provide the basis of spiritual study and development. The Quwat al Quloob of Abu Talib al Makki [d 996], Risalah al Qushayriyah by Abul Qasim al Qushayri [d1072], Ihya ulum ad din by Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazzali [d 1111], and the treatises of Abdul Qadir Jillani [d 1166],a re a few of the vast ocean of spiritual literature that began to form through the words of these great men.

The objective was to bring about an awakening of human consciousness that was close to the inner state of Prophet Muhammad [p.b.u.h]. With the passage of time these sufi elements crystallized into formal orders under the authority of their spiritual masters. Most of the sufi orders functioned under the spiritual direction of their lineage, that is the chain of transmission of knowledge from master to master, which is ultimately traced back to the Prophet Muhammad. Most of the orders trace their spiritual authority back to the Prophet through Hazrat Ali while others through Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Salman Farsi and Hazrat Uwais Qarni.

The following are some of the orders still established today:

The Qadiri order founded by Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jillani [d1166], from Jilan in Persia, who eventually settled in Baghdad in Iraq.

The Rifai order founded by Shaykh Ahmad Rifai [d1182] in Basra.

The Shadhilli order developed under Shaykh Abul Hassan ash Shadhilli of Morocco [d1258].

The Mevlevi order of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi of Konya, Turkey. [d1273].

The Naqshbandi order of Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara [d1390].

The Bektashi order of Haji Bektash Vali of Khorasan [d1338].

The Nimatullah order of Shaykh Nuruddin in Mahan, Kirman, in Iran.

The Tijani order of Shaykh Abbas Ahmad ibn al Tijani, an Algerian Berber [d1815].

The Jerrahi order of Shaykh Nuruddin Muhammad al Jerrah of Istanbul [d1720].

The Chishti order of Khwaja Abu Ishaq Shami Chishti [d966].

The sufi orders, too, have suffered the effects of cyclical conversion like rise and decline. Wherever there was a lack of Islamic source material or the original way of Muhammad, the orders came to be dominated by the older cultures of their environments. Thus some practices adopted by these orders have not been free from adulteration. Sufism, like all major movements has been subjected to itís share of controversy and criticism. One reason has been the genuine concern for the unIslamic practices that found their way into sufi customs and beliefs, at times, through sheer ignorance, while at others due to purposive alienation by false claimants to the sufi doctrine. There has been, as well, gross misunderstanding of the sufi rhetoric uttered by the mystics while in the grip of intense mystical ecstacy. Here we may refer to the famous utterance of Mansur Hallaj "Anal Haqq", meaning I am the Truth. He was martyred in 923 a.d, at the hands of the religious clergy. Hallaj had arrived at the stage of total annihilation in the Divine i.e fanafi Allah, but he could not complete the journey of return to the world of manifestation. So lost did he become in the Divine tajalli or theophany, that he became indecipherable to the ordinary mind. He stands at the pinnacle of the symbol of sufi persecution.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Muslims have tried to revive the authenticity of Islamic teachings. Sufi teachers consider the forgetfulness of God as the root cause of all negativity. An Algerian freedom fighter, Abdal Qadir al Jazairi [1883], devoted his exile in Syria reviving the heritage of Ibn Arabi. Parallel to the resurgence of Sufism in the Islamic world has been the spread of Sufism to the west. Shaykh Inayat Khan, the Chishti saint from India took his teachings and music to the west. His legacy is carried forward by his son Pir Vilayat Inayat in America. RenÈ Guenon, a mathematician turned metaphysician, introduced the sufi doctrine in France. He died in Cairo in 1951. Frithjof Schuon was a Shaykh of the Shadhillya-Alawiyah order of North Africa, though he lived most of his life in Switzerland and the United States. The main thrust of his writings is that world religions are based on one universal esotericism. He asserts the necessity for all esotericists to observe the exoteric dimensions of their traditions. Martin Lings is another sufi saint of the twentieth century who advocates a Sufism that is intellectually strong yet well rooted in Islamic texts. Syed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian scholar stresses the same need. The Turkish Jerrahi leader, Muzaffar Ozak, mingles intellectual discernment with Divine Love. The Iranian Nimatullah leader Dr Javad Nurbakhsh, has written and published extensively on Sufism.

Grass-roots Muslims have always been more inspired by sufi teachers than by any of the academic or clerical style training.

Sufism is the gateway through which we can enter the post-modern world and hoist the flag of ultimate evolution on the mount where science and religion shall take their marital vows.

By Naila Amat-un-Nur