The Sufi Mystical Path (tasawwuf)

I bear witness that there is no reality but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah

The Sufi path (tasawwuf) is not about having anomalous, mysterious experiences and the unveiling of lights, but, rather, the Sufi way is directed toward learning how to worship the Truth.

All the rest is nothing but machinations of the ego and its conceits.

Nine Questions: An Interview - Part 2

The individual who e-mailed the following questions was doing a school project on religion and was interested in finding out about the Sufi tradition.

Question 3) Who are some key people in Sufi history?

A teacher of my first shaykh once said: "There have been so many Rumis who have never uttered a word." Among other things, he meant by this that one cannot ascertain the status or spiritual station of someone merely by what is visible in the physical/material world, and, therefore, we are not necessarily in a good position to judge who - from a Divine perspective - can be said to play key roles in the history of the Sufi tradition.

Indeed, God has said that the saints are gathered beneath a canopy which Divinity keeps concealed from all except those to whom God wishes to divulge such secrets. One might suppose that the relationship between the known great shaykhs of the Sufi path and the unknown great shaykhs of this same mystical path are a little like the relationship of the visible portion of an iceberg with those portions which lie beneath the water's surface.

Of the great shaykhs who have become known, for reasons best known to Divinity, to the world, there are far too many to list. A few of them are as follows.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was - in fact, is - the first Sufi and the shaykh of all subsequent shaykhs. The members of the Prophet's immediate household also have played fundamental roles in helping to perpetuate the Sufi tradition. This household includes: the Prophet's daughter, Hazrat Bibi Fatima (may Allah be pleased with her), his son-in-law Hazrat Ali, and the two sons which came forth from this marriage - namely, Hazrat Hasan and Hazrat Hussein (may Allah be pleased with them all).

Many of the male and female Companions of the Prophet were very great Sufi exemplars. In addition, one has people such as, in no particular order, historical or otherwise: Ra'bia of Basra, Hasan of Basra, al-Muhasibbi of Baghdad, al-Hujwiri, al-Hallaj, Abu Yazeed, Shams Tabriz, Rumi, Farid-ud-din Attar, Ansari, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Abdul Kadir Gilani, Muinuddin Hasan Chishti, Ibn al-`Arabi, Hafiz of Shiraz, al-Jili, Sherafudeen Muneri, Najm al-din Razi, Ahmed al-Alawi, Muhammad Tajuddin Shah Baba, (may Allah's blessings be upon all of these individuals), and on and on and on and on.

All of these individuals had, by the grace of God, important roles to play in the history of the Sufi path. However, there were many others whose names may not be as familiar or whose names may have been lost with the passage of time who also played significant roles of service to the Sufi tradition. What recorded history remembers does not exhaust the truth of these matters.

Question 4) How did sufism change when it was brougt to the U.S.?

The reality of the essence of the Sufi Path did not change at all. What changed was the understanding of many people here concerning the nature of the Sufi Path. In effect, there were a number of individuals who called, or are calling, themselves Sufi shaykhs who began imposing their own likes, dislikes and confusions onto the Sufi path.

In time, many people have come to take these invented versions of the Sufi path to be the reality of, and truth about, that path. As a result, it would seem that what is referred to as the Sufi path has undergone a transformation, but this is not the case.

Tasawwuf remains what it always has been. Those who are embraced and supported by God's blessings and insight understand this. The rest do not, or do so only through very distorted glasses, and, consequently, they have become confused themselves and have, in turn, led others into confusion.

Question 5) How can a Jew, a Hindu, and a Taoist all be Sufis?

Actually, this is, in a sense, the wrong question. The issue is not how individuals from different faith groups can step onto the Sufi path; rather, the issue is can one pursue the Sufi path to its logical conclusion and remain, say, a Jew, a Hindu or a Taoist?

The answer to this latter question is that one cannot. At some point a person has to make a choice about which specific mystical path she or he is following and to which one is going to be committed and faithful.

There are a number of mystical paths -- each of which is, at least in principle, and if God is willing -- fully capable of transporting the individual to the desired spiritual destination. But, one must stick to that path and not start digging for spiritual treasure in lots of different places.

A number of people these days are under the mis-apprehension that mysticism is a technology in which one can borrow from a variety of different spiritual traditions and reassemble such a set of eclectic practices in a context that is removed from the original spiritual context from which the practices and techniques were exported. This is not so.

Spirituality is an ecosystem in the fullest sense of this word. When one starts to fool around with the balance, intricacy, subtlety, and interconnectedness of such a system, then, eventually, either the system or the individual, or both, are destroyed.

All too many individuals seem to assume that if they have an anomalous experience after engaging in some mystical practice or practices which have been picked up from here or there, then such an experience must be veridical or authentic. This need not be so.

There are many forces, within and without us, which are intent on generating obstacles to the sincere pursuit of spirituality. These forces are fully capable of inducing altered states of consciousness within us, but not all altered states of consciousness necessarily reflect some mystical truth or reality.

People from diverse spiritual backgrounds have encountered people during their travels who may or may not be authentic Sufi teachers. False teachers often can be heard saying that a seeker after spiritual realization does not have to become Muslim in order to be Sufi.

This is misleading as it stands. Although it is true that someone can start out coming from any number of possible spiritual or non-spiritual traditions, and, as such, could become initiated into an authentic Sufi Order without becoming a full-fledged Muslim right away, nonetheless, the very act of taking initiation with a true Sufi teacher requires one to say that one believes in Allah and in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the Messenger or Rasul of Allah.

This also happens to be the first step in becoming a Muslim. However, even in the time of the Prophet, the Companions did not become full-fledged Muslims (in the sense of observing all the basic five pillars which are required of a Muslim today or in following all the, say, dietary restrictions which are followed today). For instance, ritual prayers, fasting, Hajj, and the complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages only took place over a period nearly two decades.

So, it is possible to be inclined to the Islamic spiritual tradition without necessarily fulfilling all of its requirements right away. Another example concerns those individuals who grow up in Muslim families, whether in North America or elsewhere, but who do not - nor are they expected to by their families or the rest of the Muslim community - to become full-fledged practicing Muslims overnight.

There can be no compulsion in matters of Deen, or the process of spiritual realization of one's essential nature and capacity. Each person must be allowed to go about this process in a way that is most manageable by them.

There are some Sufi Orders who will not, under any circumstances, accept someone into the chain of spiritual transmission known as a silsilah who has not first accepted Islam. There are other Orders which will not allow a person to go through the initiation process unless this individual has been a staunch, practicing Muslim for many years prior to seeking initiation.

There are, on the other hand, some authentic Sufi Orders and shaykhs who will not insist on this. They allow non-Muslim people who wish to step onto the mystical path to start out slowly and gradually, God willing, work their way into the rest of the requirements of Islam beyond an initial statement of commitment to the Oneness of God and the recognition that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the Messenger or Rasul of God.

These people may be Jews or Christians or Native Americans or Buddhists, and they may remain this way in many ways for some time. Eventually, however, they will come to understand, God willing, that if they wish to pursue the Sufi mystical path rather than some other authentic mystical path, then they are going to have dive off the high board into the pool of Islam.

How long this will take, or if it will ever occur, depends on the individual. Those people who do not make this spiritual transition and adjustment will travel only a very limited distance along the Sufi path, but they always will be accepted with love and kindness by the shaykh even if they decide to remain Christian, Jewish, or whatever.

Stepping onto the Sufi path is not the same thing as being a traveler on that path. Moreover, being a traveler does not mean that one has, or ever will, arrive at the ultimate destination of the Sufi journey.

A person who takes initiation may, or may not, have certain legitimate mystical experiences. In fact, it may be that someone who has resisted becoming Muslim in a fuller, more committed sense, may, at least initially, have more spiritual experiences than a person who has decided to become Muslim and make the requisite commitment.

The first person may be in need of such confirmational experiences to help the individual understand that mystical truths are real and capable of being tasted, to varying degrees. The second individual may not need such experiences because the faith already is quite strong and not in need, at least at this particular junction in time, of being confirmed or "proven" in some fashion through such experiences.

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