Guidance and the Path in Sufism

A word on guidance and the path of sufism, to follow up on a presentation I gave earlier this year for the Middle East Outreach Council.  For orthodox Muslims, the path – the only true path to God – is the shari‛a, the law of God.  Sufism is not a rejection of the shari‛a.  Despite their mystical focus on God, most sufis have continued to adhere to the laws of Islam, performing hajj, fasting during Ramadan, paying zakat, and so on. 

Yet a peculiar characteristic of some sufis throughout the history of Islamic mysticism has been their persistent, sometimes quite passionate non-conformity, including a refusal to conform to the shari‛a.  This even meant that some sufis engaged in utterly unacceptable behavior, including drinking, drugs, and homosexuality.  On the whole, however, sufis have believed that the shari‛a is the first of three necessary stages of spiritual development: shari‛a, tariqa, and haqiqa.  The obvious distinction here from the path sought by orthodox Muslims is that sufis have believed that shari‛a is necessary but not sufficient. 

The Path of the Sufi might therefore be divided into three stages.  The first of these is shari‛a, which is represented to worshippers as the main road, the highway leading to God through correct behavior, ritual, and belief.  These beliefs and actions constitute Islam and Iman – submission and belief.

The second stage of the sufi is tariqa, which is the lesser traveled road leading from shari‛a to a closer relationship with God on the way to union with Him.  Tariqa involves the rituals sufis are expected to go through or engage in, including dhikr, and the appropriate stations, such as repentance, chastity, poverty, watchfulness, patience, and asceticism.

No Muslim is expected – or for that mattered encouraged – to move on his own from shari‛a to tariqa.  A tariqat is a spiritual order that one belongs to and which provides guidance.  One cannot leap from normal everyday existence to oneness with God.  The Truth is out there, but it takes great effort and guidance to achieve.  Sufis generally believe in an established hierarchy of understanding, which crystallized at a particular point in sufi history and which began with the Prophet.  In the chain of transference of divine or hidden knowledge, there were many links or silsila.  The first of these was the Prophet himself, who was said to pass on his gnostic knowledge to his son-in-law, ‘Ali, through whom most tariqa leaders claim descent, either spiritually or physically (or both).  Muhammad was thus the highest Pole or qutb.

Unfortunately, we are all so far outside this chain of transmission that for the average believer, working alone will not be enough.  This is one of the most essential differences between sufism and other traditions of Islam.  To be a good Muslim, all you really need is God’s message, the understanding of which was enhanced by the Prophet Muhammad and his sunna.  Guidance for a Muslim today may be welcomed – guidance from your local imam, for example, or from the ‘ulama, the men of learning – but it is not seen as necessary in order to be a good Muslim.  However, most sufis will argue that there is no way to travel the mystical path to God on your own.  You must have guidance.

Therefore, the sufi novice is expected to submit himself to a shaykh, one who lies within the chain of transmission or who has achieved a significantly higher level of understanding, piety, and ihsan (that which is beautiful to God), so that he may guide us along the same path.  Obedience to the master was also deemed essential; the disciple must do exactly what the master instructed.  Sufis believed that the shaykh embodied the baraka or blessing that had been spiritually inherited through the chain of spiritual leaders leading all the way back to the Prophet.  While some of these holy men roamed the earth, teaching as they went, others settled down and allowed students to come to them, thus forming the holy orders or tariqats.  To be near the shaykh meant the possibility of receiving some of his baraka.  The act of initiation could involve something as simple as being touched by the shaykh while repeating certain phrases.

With the assistance, the guidance of the shaykh, along with pure devotion to God, and with God’s blessing, one might attain to haqiqa, which is the state of understanding Truth, which only the Friends of God, the highest in piety, can achieve.  The term haqiqa derives from Haqq, the Real, and in sufism, God is the only Real, the only Truth.  This is a subject that many sufis have spoken and written on over the years, even from the earliest years of Islamic mysticism.  Mansur al-Hallaj (AD 858-922), for example, was a Persian mystic born in the province of Fars, the son of a cotton carder (which is what “hallaj” means).  He has been described as the “martyr par excellence,” a model of suffering and devotion who inspired the utmost hatred and quite passionate love.  Even his master, Junayd, turned against him. 

As with Bistami, some of Hallaj’s statements brought great suspicion down upon him, such as when Hallaj supposedly knocked on the door of Junayd and responded to the question, “Who is there?” with the answer, “ana’l-Haqq,” meaning “I am the absolute Truth,” surely a description only suitable for God.  With a growing number of enemies agitating against him in Baghdad, al-Hallaj traveled widely, yet eventually returned to Baghdad, where he was denounced, imprisoned, and finally executed on 26 March 922.  His hands and feet were cut off, after which he was likely hung, and finally decapitated, a horrible death for which he apparently had no fear, believing as he did that death would bring him at last into union with God.

The nature of truth has been well discussed and debated not only by mystics, but by philosophers as well, and one man who encompassed both realms of understanding was Muhammad ibn ‘Arabi (AD 1165-1240), known affectionately to sufis as Muhyiddin (he who restores life to religion).  Muhyiddin was a mystic, a philosopher, a poet, and one of the greatest masters the sufi world has ever known.  In his masterful text, Futûhât al-Makkiyya, he describes the oneness, the unity of God.  The Real.  Which only the Perfect Man is capable of perceiving, but even then with the sadness that comes from realizing how separate humanity is from God.  Muhyiddin writes, in terms reminiscent of Plato, of the veils that are cast over the Truth by God, and that most of us will never be able to see beyond the veils to the Truth that lies beneath.  God will not allow it.  You may strive and in the end only move from one veil to another.  Yet the Real – Haqq – is exactly what the sufi strives for, and only occasionally achieves through absolute discipline and commitment to God as the only reality. 

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