Many westerners discovered Islam through Sufism, while others discovered Sufism through Islam. So what is Sufism?
One of the most eloquent definitions of Sufism comes from Samnun who said Sufism is “to not possess anything nor be possessed by anything”. Short as it maybe, this definition summarizes the essence of the Sufi tradition. Indeed, Sufi practitioners strive towards becoming a saint (wali) by performing prayers and contemplation beyond what is required, leading an ascetic lifestyle, leaving behind fancy clothing, food, housing, etc., and steering clear from life’s temptations. As such, a Sufi renounces worldly pleasures and possessions that invariably end up “possessing” us.
The picture becomes clearer when you add Al Jariri’s definition of Sufism. “Sufism consists of entering every exalted quality (khulq) and leaving behind every despicable quality”. This second definition complements Samnun’s, focusing the spotlight on qualities that a Sufi should strive to acquire (exalted qualities) in order to repair the heart turning it away from the material things that keep him from really seeing/viewing the Truth (Allah).
Perception of God (The Truth) can only occur according to Sufi tradition when the seeker (Sufi) frees himself of every material attachment that imprisons his spirit. When he turns away from all else, only then can he perceive the presence of the Divine.
Sufism is also about pure Love. The Sufi loves his Creator and this love guides all of his actions. When this pure love grows to fill him completely, the duality of self and Creator fades and the self dissolves into the One (Creator). Given the preceding, Sufism has been described by some, as the realm or science of qualities. Conversely, others called it the spiritual philosophy of Islam, or the philosophy of divine truths.
Understanding Sufism is to recognize that it is a philosophy of life that encompasses all of these definitions. But, that it is above all a personal experience, an individual journey to Knowledge that is attained through honesty with the Creator and devoutness to Him. Sufism involves the ritual purification of traits deemed reprehensible while adding praiseworthy qualities. This practice according to Sufi scholars is the perfection of worship (ihsan) as revealed by the angel Gabriel to the prophet of Islam Muhammad: “Worship and serve Allah as you are seeing Him and while you see Him not yet truly He sees you”.
A powerful component of Sufism is its requirement of Sufis to show others genuine love and compassion. This requirement which is at the core of the Islamic tradition aims at building a community on the foundations of love, happiness and goodness.
As such, a comprehensive description of Sufism should highlight the roles of will and spiritual love in fueling the Sufi’s decision to begin his journey of spiritual awakening in search for the Truth, leaving behind everything else.
This experiential journey takes the individual through several stations in his ascension: Betterment of his qualities and focus on morality, the consumption of the self in the absolute Truth, perception/viewing of the Divine, and tranquility and happiness.
In conclusion, we will use the words of Ibn Ajiba to summarize Sufism as the “science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits”.
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