Today, the Islamic world is more divided than it has ever been. While the commonly portrayed narrative pits the “free” and democratic Western world against the authoritarian extremism of predominantly Muslim countries, the true war to be won is one of ideology within the Islamic tradition itself. Despite the religion’s hardline condemnation of extremism, many in the West reject the idea that Islam is a religion of peace.
The complexities of living in this divided world have created inevitable misunderstandings and justified frustrations among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. However, there is a tradition of Islamic practice that transcends the black-and-white divisions that the world has seemed to internalize — a tradition that is presently threatened by extremism, precisely because it threatens extremism’s hold on the Islamic world. This is the endlessly gracious Islamic tradition of Sufism.
There is much misconception and confusion surrounding this mystical tradition of Islam. In an effort to bring the true teachings of Sufism to light, here is a distilled set of some of the core tenets of Sufism that can impact the world today.
Respect for Independence of Thought
“To be a Sufi is to detach from fixed ideas and from preconceptions; and to not try to avoid what is your lot.”
— Abu-Saeed, 10th century
The teachings of Sufism are rooted in navigating contradiction. While the Sufi is taught to avoid tacitly accepting the collective hardened thinking of society, the Sufi is similarly asked to act in accordance to “what is his lot.” If a person’s lot is extended to mean all of mankind, this idea is rooted in respect for others; as a Sufi, one must treat others with the humanity that one expects for oneself. Nuri Mojudi further accentuates this idea, saying, “The Sufi is one who does what others do — when it is necessary. He is also one who does what others cannot do — when it is indicated.”
The other side of the coin here is detaching oneself “from fixed ideas and from preconceptions.” There is a great emphasis in Sufism on the fact that one’s spirituality and relationship with the divine is one’s own to be practiced in accordance with the guidelines set by God himself. The independence of thought professed in the Sufi tradition is also what allows for Sufism’s practical attitude of tolerance and acceptance of other beliefs.
This was and still is especially vital in maintaining peace in multicultural countries with different faiths coexisting. Peace is maintained by tolerance of independent thought. An adjacent Sufi proverb complements the idea: “There are as many paths to Truth as there are souls of men.” In understanding and accepting people’s right to think independently and seek out their own truths, Sufism embodies the practicality of the phrase “Islam is the religion of peace.”
Charity Is Greater Than Wealth
“When I see the poor dervish unfed
My own food is pain and poison to me”
— Saadi of Shiraz, 13th century
There are five core tenets, or pillars, of Islam. After a firm declaration of faith and daily prayer, the third pillar is that of charity, or Zakat, which in Arabic translates to “that which purifies.” Just as cleansing purifies the body and prayer purifies the soul, Muslims believe that the act of Zakat purifies one’s worldly possessions in a way that is pleasing to God.
In modern times, the unequal distribution of wealth globally has made it such that the people in the richest 1 percent of the world possess nearly half of the world’s riches. According to the World Economic Forum, wealth inequality in a given country is strongly correlated with lower statistical rates of well-being and happiness. On a basic level, it’s hardly necessary to need to cite statistics and studies to explain that charitability on the part of every living person would impact the world positively. If everyone felt the “pain and poison” in their own wealth upon seeing the “poor dervish unfed,” the world would collectively be able to develop the empathy required to want to participate in Zakat, the cleansing of their wealth. The result could be a happier world at large.
Action Is Greater Than Thought
“What is a fundamental mistake of man’s?
To think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting-room.”
— Sufi Proverb
In quoting an unnamed Sufi master, Idries Shah, in his book “Seeker After Truth,” brings forward an idea whose profundity is pointed and difficult to swallow. Most people’s actions are on auto-pilot, from waking up, checking their phones, reading the news and going about their ordinary days. Although there isn’t much to be faulted in living a routine-based life, it is Abu-Saeed’s aforementioned rejection of “fixed ideas” that allows for one to truly be alive, and not simply be “asleep in life’s waiting room.”
For most people, their moral compass dictates their actions only at points in which their morality is tested. For the Sufi, every moment of life is lived, every action taken is done, with the remembrance of God; their relationship with God is where their moral compass is inherently derived from. In a sense, to be a Sufi is to guide every minute action one takes with one’s sense of morality.
The common misconception of Sufism and “mystical” schools of thought in general is that they are mostly rooted in thought yet not prescriptive in action, and therefore are not practical. Tenth-century Sufi writer Abu-Saeed rebuts, “The true saint goes in and out amongst the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment.”
Sufism professes that a person’s religiosity and philosophical holdings are only as good as their actions. A saintly person is not someone who spends all of their time sitting and meditating upon divine enlightenment simply for the sake of spiritual endeavor. Rather, it is the person who brings their spirituality into practice and allows others to experience their human energy, all for the sake of a higher purpose. Their thoughts, desires and charitability are brought into the world through their actions with the hope that they can better the world in some way, small or large.
Given the peaceful and tolerant doctrine professed by Sufi writers and practitioners, it is easy to see why much of what embodies Sufism is antithetical to the practices of Islamic extremists. This schism within Islamic thought transcends the Sunni-Shiite split in a way that has manifested in a number of assaults on Sufi mosques by extremists in different parts of the world. This is a testament to the fact that the most difficult battle to be won against the fundamentalists of Islam is within Islamic ideology. In order to create a united front against violent extremists, the world must take the time to understand the truth of Islam; God-willing, it will be through the lasting light of Sufism.