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.

An Introduction

The Sufi path is, in a sense, an apprenticeship process. In such a program, an individual associates with a spiritual elder or master - that is, someone who has gained mastery over herself or himself.

Although in the beginning this association may take place in the context of physical proximity, this association is, in essence, a function of the spiritual relationship between a teacher and student. Consequently, once the proper seeds have been sown and begun to take root, the association can carry on quite well even if considerable physical distances may separate the two people.

The purpose of the aforementioned association is to provide the individual with an opportunity to realize varying degrees of spiritual potential which are inherent in the nature of the human being. The degree of this potential which may be realized depends, in part, on the character of the commitment and spiritual capacity of the individual who is seeking realization.

Ultimately, of course, capacity and struggles notwithstanding, the extent of spiritual realization depends on the grace of God. In fact, both an individual's spiritual capacity, as well as one's willingness and strength to struggle in the way of God are themselves manifestation of God's blessings.

One of the most fundamental dimensions of the previously noted issue of the apprenticeship process revolves around the authenticity of the spiritual elder who is to oversee the individual's journey on the Sufi path of Self-realization. The legitimacy of a given teacher or elder is underwritten by a chain of proven and accepted (by God) masters, each of whom has been entrusted by his or her own guide, to assume the responsibility of transmitting, if God wishes, the methods, insights, wisdom and understanding of the mystical sciences which constitute the Sufi path.

However, none of these spiritual teachings can take root essentially and, then, God willing, bear fruit, unless the teacher has the God-given capacity to help establish and engender the quality of nisbath in the person seeking realization. Nisbath is the medium, so to speak, through which spiritual nourishment is transmitted and received.

An individual may have considerable knowledge of the Sufi path, and this person may even have acquired, through various means, certain extraordinary spiritual gifts of one description or another, but if this individual does not have, by the grace of God, the capacity to engender and nurture nisbath within the seeker, then such a person cannot serve as a viable spiritual guide. Nisbath is the umbilical cord of the Sufi path.

Alternatively, if the seeker does not permit herself or himself to grasp hold of, and be opened up to, the spiritual possibilities entailed by the nisbath being offered through a teacher, then no amount of spiritual practices will effect much transformation in such a would-be wayfarer of the mystical path. Many people make the mistake of assuming that the Sufi journey is merely a matter of the acquisition of the requisite kinds of technique and method, when, in reality, technique and method are relatively useless without a healthy nisbath linking spiritual elder and seeker.

Like any other contract, the relationship between student and teacher is organized by the conditions of offer, acceptance and consideration that give expression to the etiquette and nature of the Sufi path. Unless the conditions of the contract are honored, then, in point of fact, the contract becomes null and void.

An authentic spiritual guide always will fulfil, God willing, the terms and conditions of the contract of nisbath. Unfortunately, this often is not so when considered from the seeker's side of fulfilling the duties and obligations that are entailed by the spiritual contract binding teacher and student on the path of Self-realization.

Sufi mystical sciences are intended, God willing, to help the individual seeker to realize her or his true identity and essential capacity. These sciences involve, among other things, providing a means of gaining insight into the quality of one's true Self as a manifestation of Divine attributes.

Furthermore, Sufi mystical sciences offer the individual an opportunity, God willing, to activate ones unique, essential capacity to know, love, cherish, serve and worship Divinity. Moreover, when this capacity is fully realized, one can fulfil one's responsibilities properly with respect to being a caretaker of, and source of mercy for, all of creation.

All aspects of the Sufi mystical path give expression to an infinite, unconditional and sustaining love. This love is an essential binding and transformational force which colors, shapes and orients all the various facets of Sufi methodology.

Without this love, there is no mysticism, irrespective of whatever rituals, practices or appearances may remain. The Sufi mystical sciences constitute the enduring passion play in which human beings both seek, and are sought by, their Creator through the currents and eddies of an ocean of Divine manifestation.

The presence of this unconditional love which is manifested through the spiritual guide should not be assumed to be a sign of license being extended to the seeker in which anything is permitted. Moreover, such unconditional love does not mean that love can be relativized.

Unconditional love is a Divine gift that establishes a constructive framework of compassion, trust, acceptance, tolerance, wisdom, forgiveness, and encouragement that help enable the seeker to struggle with the mistakes and problems which are inevitable parts of the individual's journey along the Sufi path. Unconditional love provides the degrees of freedom necessary to provide the individual with the sort of working environment through which one has an opportunity, God willing, to overcome, and leave behind, those facets of human nature that are inclined to error, distortion and rebellion concerning the truth being manifested by means of, and which stands behind, human existence.

Nine Questions: An Interview

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 1) Historically, how did Sufism originate?

In one sense, the esoteric or mystical dimension of Islam has been in existence as long as human beings have been walking the face of the Earth. However, the outer or exoteric manifestations associated with such a spiritual tradition have varied in structural form according to times, circumstances, needs, and so on.

Some commentators have used the image of a wheel with spokes to help give expression to the relationship between the esoteric and exoteric aspects of spirituality. The various spokes symbolize so many different exoteric sets of beliefs, practices and values, while the hub of the wheel, where the spokes join, constitutes the mystical unity which underlies all surface differences.

When one looks at things from the perspective of the rim of the wheel, spirituality looks like so many separate and, often, antagonistic solitudes. When one, on the other hand, follows, by the grace of God, the surface differences back to the Source, all of the currents of separation tend to disappear.

Nonetheless, despite having said the foregoing, if one is using the term "Sufi" to refer to a historical phenomenon which arose in the context of a specific religious tradition, then the Sufi path, or "tasawwuf" (mystical sciences), originated through Islam. But, in point of fact, tying tasawwuf to Islam does not really contradict anything which has been said previously.

One of the root meetings of the Arabic word "Islam" is 'peace'. This is, among other things, the peace which, God willing, arises when an individual comes to realize, with certainty and in an experientially transrational way, the spiritual purpose of one's life - namely, to come to understand the nature of one's true, essential identity, as well as to bring on-line, so to speak and if God wishes, one's unique, spiritual capacity for loving, worshiping, cherishing, serving and knowing Divinity.

Muslims - that is, those who sincerely seek to align themselves totally with God's wishes concerning life on Earth - do not look at Islam as being the youngest in a series of religions. In deed, when one considers the idea of Islam as encompassing the spiritual currents within ourselves, as well the spiritual currents in the lives of those around us, that seek to draw one toward peace in the foregoing sense then, every exoteric tradition which is authentic, and, therefore, gives expression to Divine guidance and wisdom, is a manifestation of Islam in the aforementioned sense.

Furthermore, the foregoing perspective also is intimately related to another root meaning of the word Islam. This pertains to the individual's submission to - or better yet, absorption in - the will of God concerning the nature and purpose of life, as well as submission to or absorption in, the moral, methodological and practical ways through which one should try to work toward and implement this nature and purpose.

Consequently, both exoterically as well as esoterically, there is a unity of origins. Everything flows from One Source, One Reality, One Truth, One Purpose.

However, given that this Oneness is infinite - if not beyond infinity - then what is being said above does not mean that any single conceptual representation of such Reality or Truth is capable of capturing the richness, breadth, depth, and subtlety inherent in such Oneness. Unfortunately, many people -- from all manner of exoteric and even esoteric traditions -- suppose that human beings are able to intellectually penetrate to the bottom of everything, and this is not so - and this remains not the case irrespective of whether one is talking in terms of mystical states and stations, or one is talking in terms of the most elaborate and nuanced of theological systems.

Many truths can co-exist as so many manifestations of the One underlying Truth. Similarly, many realities can co-exist, again as so many modalities of expression or manifestation of the One underlying reality.

This is why one can say that the Sufi path existed, in a sense, even before humanity came into being, because the reality, or haqiqah, to which the term "Sufi path" makes identifying reference existed in pre-eternity (our "time" before being brought into temporality) in the form of our primordial relationship with Divinity. At the same time, one can, with equal justification, restrict the origins of the Sufi path to the set of practices, values, beliefs, relationships and so on which arose during the historical time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

In wanting to point to the esoteric or mystical dimension which is, and always has been, inherent in the potential of human beings, some people begin to throw the term "Sufi' around and try to claim that it pertains to anything which has to do with the esoteric life. When people do this, they tend to confuse and conflate issues, and in the process, mislead people, including themselves, about the true nature of the origins of the Sufi path.

Taoism, many of the different forms of yoga, Zen and certain forms of Tibetan Buddhism, various aspects of Native spirituality, different kinds of Christian mysticism (which have virtually, but not entirely, disappeared in this day and age), and the esoteric dimension of Judaism (sometimes referred to as the Qaballah, but this term can be very misleading) all have justification to claim for themselves a certain spiritual authenticity and legitimacy with respect to things mystical. Yet, none of these can correctly be said to be the Sufi path, although there may be a working equivalency among all of these traditions in relation to various values, beliefs, purposes, practices, teaching techniques, life style and so on which tend to be shared by all of them in one way or another.

Question 2) What are the basic principles or beliefs of the Sufi path?

There are many ways in which one might respond to this question and all such responses, if thoughtfully done, would be, each in its own way, more or less correct. However, one, somewhat arbitrarily, also could answer this question with three words: "fana", "baqa" and "adab". Starting with the last word first, adab encompasses the entire framework of relationships which one has with creation and one's Creator.

There is not a single moment or circumstance of life which does not have its adab or appropriate spiritual etiquette. Parents, spouse, children, relatives, non-relatives, strangers, teachers, fellow travelers of the path, those who are not interested in the spiritual life, vegetation, animal life, the mineral realm, angels, Prophets, auwliya (friends of God), people younger and older than oneself, various spiritual states and stations, as well as oneself all are owed fiduciary entitlements - that is, the entitlements which God, or the Reality underlying and making possible all being, has set as being proper to people and circumstances and with which human beings have been entrusted..

There is no 'Rule' book which can exhaust how one should discharge the foregoing responsibilities. Rather, one must engage these tasks through the idea of non-linear principles which retain a recognizable essential spirit even as they shift and change according to the structural character of the life-context under consideration.

For instance, love, sincerity, charitableness, forbearance, tolerance, forgiveness, integrity, kindness, and so on are not capable of being reduced down to rules such that whenever one comes to a certain kind of situation, then one always responds in a particular rule-governed fashion. These situations are quite different from, for example, being required to fill out a form before seeing a civil servant at a given gate or window (although even here there may be discretionary room for exceptions to these sorts of rule as well).

As such, a rule plus its exceptions do not add up to a principle. Rules tend to operate on an algorithmic basis ( the recursive application of some set linear formula), whereas principles are non-algorithmic in character.

Exoterically oriented individuals often tend to try to stuff everything in life into a rule-governed category of one kind or another, with, sometimes, problematic, even disastrous, consequences. As such, they engage the idea of adab, or spiritual etiquette, from a very narrowly conceived point of view of what is permissible or impermissible.

The people of tasawwuf operate out of a framework in which there tend to be more degrees of freedom for finding an acceptable solution to an adab-issue - that is, one which is reconcilable with the character of the principle and problem under consideration. Therefore, not everyone is necessarily required to resolve a given situation in precisely the same way, and, yet, these solutions will all bear what Wittgenstein referred to as a "family" resemblance to one another. In other words, they will be understood as having recognizable similarities to one another without being considered as the same.

None of what has been said in the foregoing should be construed to mean that anything and everything is compatible with putting a principle into motion. In fact, in many ways the rule-governed character of Shari'ah, or Divine Law, places limits and sets parameters of appropriateness within which principles may operate with some degree of flexibility while, simultaneously, meeting the requirements of the exoteric rule-governed parameters.

At the same time, when rule-governed behavior is isolated from the spiritual principles at the heart of Islam - and, therefore, when they are isolated from the properties of tasawwuf - the letter of the law often becomes empty of the very qualities which are necessary to modulate and temper the narrowness, harshness, and rigidity which tends to characterize a great deal of rule-governed behavior. In these circumstances, blind, unbalanced, superficial, uninspired, mechanical, self-serving, and thoughtless activity is let loose upon the world to wreak havoc in personal, family, community and international life.

The relationship between proper rule-governed behavior and legitimate principle governed behavior has a sort of yin-yang quality to it. In order for either one to function properly, it must be circumscribed, informed and guided by the other.

Although a Sufi should be concerned about all matters of adab, and although a great deal of the Sufi path can be described from a perspective of coming to an essential, full and certain understanding of what, in reality, adab is all about, the sine qua non of adab on the Sufi path is the relationship between the mureed (seeker) and the Sufi shaykh who is, in turn, and according to the spiritual capacity of the shaykh, a reflection of the mureed's relationship with both, each in its own way, the Prophetic tradition and Divinity. The heart and spirit of the mureed, shaykh, and Prophetic tradition are but different reflections and manifestations of the Divine Names and Attributes of God.

As such we are talking about the reflection (for example, the heart of the mureed) of a reflection [e.g., the heart of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)] of a further reflection (the light of the heart of the Macrocosmic being) of the Names and Attributes of Allah or God. This same idea can be expressed in terms of the symbolism of nested shadows (zil) in a similar way.

In broad terms, "fana", the second of the three terms that are crucial to the Sufi perspective mentioned at the outset of the current answer to your question, represents the passing away of the false-self. This is the self through which we normally engage ourselves and the rest of the universe, as well as the medium through which we approach Divinity.

The false-self is filled with, and vulnerable to, all manner of forces that generate distortion, error, bias, lacunae, ignorance, blindness, rebellion, misunderstanding, heedlessness, selfishness, and so on. When, by the grace of God, the false-self is dissolved in an Ocean of barakah (Divine blessings) by means of one's relationship with one's teacher (this is the medium of Agency and not of Causality), the individual becomes overwhelmed with the nearness, majesty, beauty, compassion, greatness, and love of Divinity, and, as a result, looses sight of one's created individuality.

One Sufi Shaykh explained the notion of fana along the following lines. When one ventures outdoors on a clear, moonless night, and goes far enough from the lights of the city, then one can see a sky filled with - as Carl Sagan used to say - billions and billions of stars. If, however, one went outdoors during the daytime, the stars of the previous night would no longer be visible.

The stars have not disappeared. Instead, their feeble light is overwhelmed by the brightness of the Sun's relative nearness to Earth.

Similarly, when the false-self is dissolved, it is not that the individual per se no longer exists, but, rather, the feeble light of our normal sense of individuality is engulfed by the presence of Divinity. This Divinity is always, and everywhere, Present, but, unfortunately, the nature of the false-self is such as to be able to induce a sort of state of self-hypnosis in which we are oblivious, for the most part, to everything except our own feeble light of awareness.

Some people talk in terms of three kinds of fana. These are, in turn, fana-fil-shaykh, fana-fil-Rasul, and fana-fil-Allah. In other words, supposedly the progression of awareness is away from one's false-self and toward, in succession, an understanding and awareness of the reality of the teacher, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and Allah.

In truth, however, these three things are merely different manifestations of one and the same 'phenomenon', if you will - namely, one's relationship with Divinity. If one truly understands either one's essential nature, or the essence of one's spiritual guide, or the essence of the Prophet of God, then one realizes that one has come face to face with manifested or reflected Divinity.

Baqa - the third of our initial three terms - involves a further unveiling, beyond that of fana. Whereas fana is the dissolution (whether temporarily or permanently) of the false-self, baqa constitutes the spiritual ascendancy or coming on-line of one's true, essential self. When, if God wishes, this occurs, then one comes to understand in a direct manner of gnosis (and more) that in our essence, there is Divinity, although this is balanced with a countervailing understanding that we are not Divinity in Essence.

In short, there is a distinction between Creator and the created, but this distinction is enveloped in a Divine mystery. Those who are, by the grace of God, opened-up to this dimension or potential of the human being both understand and, yet, are bewildered by the constant on-going way in which Divinity is manifested in ways that are never repeated.

One of the facets of this aspect of non-repeatability of manifestation is that every human being has within herself or himself a unique way of giving expression to, and, therefore, serving Divine purposes. Yet, if the condition or station of baqa is not established within us, then we can never be sufficiently free to be able to transmit, with all of its radiance and beauty, the full fruition of our essential spiritual uniqueness.

If we return to the issue of adab, for a moment, the brief discussion of fana and baqa have ramifications for the observance of adab in any given set of circumstances. As long as the false self is present, and we are absent from our true, unique, essential selves, we cannot properly discharge the fiduciary responsibilities associated with the sincere observance of adab or spiritual etiquette, and this is true no matter what the nature of the relationship one is considering..

Pursuing adab on all of its levels leads one, if God wishes, toward fana and baqa. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, we cannot properly satisfy the requirements of adab until fana and baqa have, with God's blessings and support, taken place.

Similarly, one will never get to the heart of principle-governed behavior until fana and baqa have occurred. One uses rule-governed behavior -- that is, Shariah, or Divine Law -- to work toward a proper insight to the nature of principle-governed behavior, but one can never properly understand Shariah until the spiritual transformation which comes through fana and baqa have transpired and become firmly established.

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