Understanding Sufism: why is it difficult?

Many times I found myself being attacked by other Muslims who objected to my views on and admiration of Sufis. It was very clear to me from their heated remarks that they lacked the basic understanding of this spiritual tradition. Many made it seem like it was a math’hab rather than a triqa (path). They went on and on about how un-Islamic it was, and some went as far as to call Sufis kufar. And you see, as soon as you throw a remark like that, you lose me, mate.

And because of that, I have decided to write a very baraya piece on why it is so difficult for some to just understand Sufism. Now, off with the sarcastic tone and on with the theology obsessed one…
There are various obstacles that may prevent one from understanding and living Sufism. These obstacles vary between one’s ego or lack of understanding and spiritual commitment. This time I decided to  focus on certain obstacles and difficulties in understand and living Sufism. I wish to explore the relationship between living and understanding Sufism, the ego acting as a veil and the threat of the means becoming the end in themselves. Yes, this probably doesn’t make sense, but it will eventually.
Introduction to Sufi Doctrine written by Burckhardt was a great introduction to this spiritual lifestyle. It speaks about the difficulty of understanding Sufism for people outside of the tradition . This is very important, as the author distinguishes between being an observer and being an engaged actor in the activity. The former misses out on the experience which is crucial to the understanding of this spiritual matter. That is because, when one takes spirituality out of the equation, then one is left with a matter of science that neglects the personal experience and engagement associated with religious practice and understanding. Therefore, this approach to understanding  Sufism would be lacking its core, because understanding Sufism lies in experiencing and living it. In other words, it would be very difficult for one to fully and understand Sufi Doctrine, if one does not practice its teachings.
In his letter, Sheikh ad-Darqawi tells his disciple that he should kill his ego , because the ego traps one in an illusion. That is because “what imprisons a man in this world… is nothing but illusion (al-wahm).” Therefore, the ego could be seen as one of the greatest obstacles that stand in the way of one and prevent him from understanding and living Sufism as it prevents him from realizing the Truth. Hence, Sufism may be perceived as a battle between one and his/her ego, where one triumphs over their ego to attain this higher state of realization. In this battle, the Sufi progresses by means of his own mujahada (work, or self mortification) and through the help and guidance of the sheikhs. In each maqam the Sufi strives to purify himself, his ego, from all worldly inclination and to prepare himself to attain the ever higher spiritual level. Therefore, through these maqams the Sufi triumphs over his ego, which could have been a veil preventing him from understanding and living Sufism.
Perhaps I should’ve noted earlier that Sufism should be understood as lifestyle, a path that helps one achieve their ultimate spiritual goal (just like Buddhism or Kabbala).

In Sufism the emphasis is in the path, which consists of a set of means. A Sufi mystic would be active in making use of these means in reaching for the Divine. Therefore, the individual makes use of these means to achieve Divine Grace. Nonetheless, some individuals might be attracted to Sufism because of these means in themselves. As the result the means become the end to these individuals. This could be seen in the cases of individuals who are attracted to Sufism because of the practices, outer manifestations, they see in some turuq. One of these outer manifestations can be dancing or uniform dress code as seen in some turuq. In this sense, some people join Sufi turuq as they are fascinated by the dance (raqs) and this is where their practice would end. Nonetheless, they would see themselves as Sufis because of their engagement in this practice. On the contrary, anything external associated with Sufism is not truly Sufism as such. This is because the outer manifestations are a reflection or an effect of the inner experience that the Sufi undergoes. Therefore, dance (raqs) is usually performed in s state of ecstasy (wajd) resulting from love of Allah and his Prophet (pbuh) in dhikr. As a result, one sees that dance or any other outer manifestations of the Sufi experience are means and not ends in themselves. They are tools that help one reach Divine Grace. However, if one does not understand their function properly, they can become a great obstacle preventing one from truly understanding and living Sufism. Perhaps this is why a number of Sufi turuq nowadays seem as cults, where the spiritual leaders gather followers around them by engaging them in physical practices and materialistic traditions rather than engaging them in an inner spiritual journey.
On a separate note, I believe that one of the most serious difficulties in the way of understanding and living Sufism is the common belief that Sufis divinize the human, let it be the divinization of the sheikh or of the mureed himself. Nonetheless, if one understands Sufism, one would know that this belief is a misconception of the statement that says “The Sufi is not created”. In order to understand why that misconception takes place, I would first like to explain the context in which that statement should be understood and placed.

The Sufi takes initiative, and then chooses to follow a path (tarika) to the end of extinction. Extinction is the point at which the Sufi realizes that his being as a physical entity is an illusion, thus ending this belief. Then the Sufi reaches a state of baka. This state is what remains when the illusion fades away, and the only remaining reality in the world is Allah. Therefore, in this sense, the Sufi is not created because of God’s presence in man. This presence was always there, even before reaching that state of baka. Nonetheless, the realization that one is not merely a physically entity, awakens one’s awareness of that presence. That is because in the realization process, the Divine has been shown over the human, through Divine attributes overcoming and taking over the human ego. However, this does not mean that the Sufi becomes divine. This point is of great importance because it is a cause of great controversy.

Many object to the doctrine of Sufism as they believe that people who follow it, with its various turuq, move away from the main teachings of Islam and divinize their sheikhs. They support this belief by using the comment that the “Sufi is not created”. Nonetheless, if they look closely at this statement and understand the state of baka they would understand that this statement does nothing but support the concept of Tawhid. This is because in Tawhid, one believes that there is nothing or no other god in existence but Allah. And in the state of baka, the Sufi realizes that his belief in his own physical entity was nothing but an illusion created by his human ego. So his existence in itself is not real, as the only reality is Allah. Moreover “the name “Sufi”, means, strictly speaking, one who is essentially identified with Divine Act.” Thus, the Sufi reaches that state through Divine Grace, when Divine attributes take over his ego. Therefore, what is left in the Sufi is the Divine Grace. This Divine Grace is part of Allah, and Allah is not created. As a result, the Sufi would not be created in that sense.

Moreover, the presence of a chain (silsila) in each tariqa shows that the sheikhs are not divinized, but their knowledge is, as it stems from Allah. All turuq have silsilas that go back to the Prophet (pbuh). Each silsila is a transmission of grace (Baraka), through the teachings and knowledge of the Prophet, which he received from God. When the disciple (mureed) follows the teachings of the sheikh, he/she abdicates their will to the sheikh which would be a surrender of the self in the sense of the ego. This knowledge would be the Divine Grace that awakens the Sufi from the illusion of being a physical entity. Therefore, the Sufi does not divinize the sheikh but the teachings and knowledge which are Divine Grace.
In conclusion, I believe that there would be very limited understanding of Sufism without living it, as one’s experience plays an effective role in the attainment of knowledge and understanding of Sufism.  But the first step to understanding it, is to fully realize and acknowledge that this is simply a way of life, rather than the purpose to life.

Way (tariqa): mean(s)

Purpose (goal): Islam/Tawhid

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