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Surfin’ with Sufis

Sufism was perhaps first popularized in a 1968 film, The Mystic’s Journey, which featured the religious studies scholar Huston Smith.

In keeping with the times, Smith depicted Sufis as exotic whirling dervishes, reminiscent of the inside sleeve of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour lp.

This contributed to a Western myth of Sufis as itinerant mystics, blissfully dancing through enchanted, far away lands.

While this depiction may not be entirely wrong, like most religious and spiritual traditions, Sufism is about real people with definite roots and different schools of organized belief.

The Sufis emerged from Islamic orthodoxy. The word sufi (Arabic = mystic) is likely based on the root suf (wool), recalling the simple woolen garments worn by ascetics. The Sufi generally believes in a kind of natural pantheism, where creator and creation are seen as one unbroken whole. So the goal of the Sufi is to totally immersed themselves in this undivided oneness.

Sufism became an organized movement around the 7th and 8th centuries, mostly in reaction to the Middle-Eastern Umayyad dynasty, which was perceived as too worldly. The most publicized Dervish orders of Sufism arose in India around the 12th and 13th centuries. These emphasized ecstatic states and were criticized by some orthodox believers but, nevertheless, remained influential into modern times.

Like any kind of religious experience, we can’t say too much about what a Sufi actually feels, or how the numinous, inner light – if any – is experienced by them. But there’s no shortage of Sufi literature that might give us some kind of clue.

The following beautifully reveals Abul Cheir’s particular identification with all aspects of existence and his understanding of cosmic totality.

I am the mote from the sun, I am the sun’s round.
I am the first light of dawn, the sighs of eve, the rustling of the branch, the roar of the sea.
I am mast, tiller, skip, and vessel. I am the shoal upon which I sink.
I am bird-catcher, bird and net. I am face and mirror, voice and echo.
I am the living tree and the parrot of the branch.
I am silence and thought, tongue and speech.
I am the breath of the flute, the glimmer of stone, the shining of metal.
I am the drunk and the grape, the winepress and tavern, the crystal of the cup.
I am the candle and the moth that circles round it.
I am doctor and illness, poison and cure.
I am war and peace, battlefield and victory; village and conquerors, hordes and wall.
I am the mortar and trowel, worker and plan, cornerstone and high tree, structure and ruin.
I am the hart and the lion, the lamb and wolf. I am herdsman of all.
I am the chain of being, the ring of all worlds, the ladder of creation, the rising and falling.
I am what is and what is not. I am the soul inside All.¹

Again, this kind of identifying with the ALL was criticized within some orthodox circles. Sayings like “I am truth” and Praise be to me” are bound to raise a few eyebrows among any kind of orthodoxy that believes everyday human beings can never be equal to God.²

Professor Alford T. Welch likens the Sufi’s quest for mystical union to the 14th-century Christian treatise, Theologia Germanica.³ Welch says that both types of mystics, Sufi and Christian, undero distinct phases in the pursuit of the ultimate realization of love and continual God-awareness.

I Purification

1. Remorse for sin
2. Confession of sin
3. Reconciliation of life

II Enlightenment

4.  Avoidance of sin
5.  Living life of virtue and good works
6.  Bearing trial and temptation

III Union

7.  Pureness and integrity of heart
8.  Love
9.  Meditation on God

However, this comparison might be a bit forced. A moment’s reflection tells us that we can’t really know if Sufi and Christian mystics experience (what they see as) God in the same way. Certainly their respective conceptions of God differ. For the Sufi, God is everything. Whereas the Christian sees God in sharp contrast to that which is “not from” or which has “rebelled against” God—i.e. Satan or evil. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Sufi and Christian experiences of God also differ.

Theological speculation and debates aside, the essence of Sufism might best be expressed by the 13th-century and increasingly popular poet Jala ud-Din Rumi. Rumi’s verse can be found in most bookstores and his message prefigures Joseph Campbell’s dictum of “follow your bliss”:

Why are your lips dry when the cup is full?
Conceive an impossible plan – as Noah did!
Live the life that you love!4

Sufism Links

Notes

¹ I stumbled upon this passage at the University of Ottawa library in the 1990s, before the birth of Earthpages.org. Unfortunately the complete reference is currently unavailable, although I’m hoping to track it down.

² See William Theodore de Bary (ed.), Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958, p. 407.

³ Adapted from Alford T. Welch, “Islam” in John R. Hinnells (ed.) A New Handbook of Living Religions, Cambridge Mass: Blackwell and Penguin, 1997, p. 204.

4 Cited in T. Freke and P. Gandy, The Complete Guide to World Mysticism, London: Piatkus. 1998, p. 111.

Surfin’ with Sufis © Michael Clark.
Photos Jelebia and Rainbow over Rabat © Michael Clark.

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