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By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri


Sufism and Islam cannot be separated, in the same way that higher consciousness or awakening cannot be separated from Islam. Islam is not a historical phenomenon that began 1,400 years ago. It is the timeless art of awakening by means of submission. Sufism is the heart of Islam. It is as ancient as the rise of human consciousness.


The rise of Sufism began after the first century of Islam as a struggle against the increasing distortions and misrepresentations of its teachings, especially as perpetrated by the leadership of the day. Rulers or kings could often be seen to be using the name of Islam to justify their own ends, or to be discarding those aspects of its teachings which did not suit their purposes or extravagant lifestyle. It is from this time onwards that history records the growing revival, renewal and militancy among many groups of sincere Muslims throughout the expanding Muslim world who were eager to restore the pure and original message brought by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This was a spontaneous awakening of individuals discovering the true prophetic way who were inspired by the inner light of awakening and fulfillment. Sufism spread across the land without its being a centrally organized movement. The Sufi brotherhood was a reality without much of an outer co-ordination or organization. Its reality was the awakening of the original ascetic and joyful qualities within people's hearts and the acceptance of the outer prophetic law. Sufism bore similarities to ascetic mysticism, yet it also allowed for spiritual militancy in many instances. The brotherhood which was experienced by the Sufis was due mostly to their inner conditioning and state of their hearts, rather than to adherence to any particular theological doctrine or other ethnic or traditional bondages.

The Sufi movement in Islam echoed similar movements in other major religions, such as Cabbalism in Judaism, Gnosticism or Unitarianism in Christianity and, in a way, the advent of Buddhism where Hinduism is concerned. Also, as with other spiritual movements and revivals, we find instances of some Sufis taking things to extremes, and even distorting the multi-dimensions of Islam. Excess esotericism, or the rejection of the bounds of outer behavior or the balanced prophetic way, are examples of this phenomenon, although they are the exception rather than the rule.

What is relevant to us today about Sufism is that it has maintained a clear thread and line of direct transmission of wisdom back to original Islam. The key to Sufism is that of inner awakening, freedom and joy through recognition of outer restriction by choice and discrimination. The numerous studies which are currently being published in an attempt to understand and predict the direction of Islamic revival, such as the studies on the Sufis of Russia or on the Sufi brotherhoods in certain Middle Eastern countries, and so on, are all based on the fears of the various governments concerned of a revival which will place the leadership of the Muslims in the hands of those who are closest to emulating and living the way of life of the Prophet Muhammad. And this, of course, is a great threat to the existing authorities in most of the so-called Muslim countries today.

The reason that the majority of current studies on Sufism are of little use in a practical sense is because of the nature of inner awakening itself, which is the core of Sufism. Writing books about inner awakening is only really possible if one has experienced it, just as understanding of such books is only really possible if one genuinely desires, or has already attained, such awakening. The Sufi is the locus of connecting the outer, physical reality with a timeless, spaceless dimension which is experienced within the self. The Sufi lives like the tip of the iceberg which is apparent in the seen world, while experiencing aspects of the hidden and veiled world which is the foundation of what is visible, and which forms the rest of its reality. He does his best to understand the causal, physical outer life while awakening to an immense inner Reality, which encompasses both the known and the unknown worlds, the unitive Reality of the seen and the unseen, of time and space and non-time-space.

It is for this reason that the inner life of the Sufi has no bounds, and yet he acknowledges and accepts the outer bounds with courtesy towards nature and the natural creation. The Sufi is totally content with the immeasurable bliss within. Yet he struggles outwardly towards a better quality of life on earth and does his best without being overly concerned about the ultimate results. Outer struggle and work are necessary companions to inner purification and contentment.

Genuine Sufis are essentially similar wherever they come from, in that they share an inner light and awakening, and an outer courtesy and service to humanity. Apparent differences between Sufis tend to relate to matters concerning spiritual practices or prescriptions for the purification of hearts. The sweet fruit of Sufism is the same. It is only the trees which may look different and which may flower in different seasons.

In this work, we have tried to show that those who claim that it is possible to have Sufism without Islam are only looking at one side of the story. Inner purity is generally attainable, but without its being contained outwardly, it will not result in any real flourishing of a spiritual culture or an enlightened environment. Inner light and joy may be sufficient for an individual living in a cave, but once we start interacting with others, we need to know where and what the bounds are for that social interaction to be able to take place, and this is where we find that the laws of Islam are necessary and inseparable from Sufism.

So the relevance of Sufism today is greater than it has been in any other age, for nowadays we can across cultural and political boundaries much more easily, because of ease of access through communications, travel and closeness of the world. The message of Sufism is more urgent now, especially due to the fact that the world is increasingly becoming bound by materialism and consumerism. The awakening to the inner life of man is a necessary condition of his fulfillment as a human being. It comes as the pinnacle of his struggle with the elements and the fulfillment of his basic needs. Once our outer needs are met, then the inner must also be fulfilled. The two are so interlinked that those who are awakened to both the outer and inner realities see them as inseparable and continuous in the one creational, unific universe, ...

Up Next

[ Introduction ] Definition of Sufism ] The Early Development of Sufism ] Sufi Orders (Brotherhoods) ] Basic Sufi Concepts ] The Way of the Sufi ] Pseudo-Sufism ] Sufi Practices ] Sufi States ] Sufism and Orthodox Islam ] The Role of The Sufi ] Sufism and Society ] Sufism in Modern Times ] Sufi Biographies ]