Islamic Dilemma and the Sufi Message
By Jay Kinney
As the West comes to grips with the terrorist attacks and threats, there is a strong temptation to see things in simple terms of Good and Evil. But before we are stampeded into a “clash of civilisations,” we need to step back for a moment and examine the real forces at work. Islam is undergoing its own crisis, with many conflicting voices clamouring to be heard. The angry cries for Jihad threaten to drown out the saner counsel of Islam’s living mystics, the Sufis. What follows is one attempt to clear the air, in the hope that disaster might be averted.
Ironies abound. Amidst all the uproar it is easy to forget that in Arabic, “Islam” means “surrender,” and that it is derived from the same root word as “peace.” Those who are disposed to dismiss religion itself as an irrational scourge are happy to see this as just another case of religious hypocrisy. After all, if we add up all the casualties caused by holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, and other battles taken up in the name of God, the endless line of corpses would seem to give the lie to religious claims of a higher morality or compassion.
“All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few,” Stendhal cynically observed. But, as Oscar Wilde noted: “Who is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” While religions have failed to live up to their own ideals, the same charge can be levelled against Democracy, Communism, Humanism, Monarchy, Science, and every other means of human self-organisation and inquiry. Of this we can be sure: no sooner will a model for social benefit be formulated than a dozen uses will be found to employ it for social ill. Social institutions – by their very nature – become arenas for the exercise of power and greed: the forces of the reptilian brain which take us back to Step One, over and over again.
Yet despite the abysmal record of folly and destruction, there is an enduring human need for a sense of spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves. Religions may be imperfect, but they have nevertheless provided a moral anchor for billions of people throughout history. Even if a believer’s faith be relatively unsophisticated and dependent on others’ say so, when sincerely held, it does offer some sense of connection with the Universe. This is no small thing, but it hardly exhausts the possibilities.
Fortunately, there is clear testimony that some individuals and groups have been able to fully realise the kernel of truth that too often lies slumbering within the religious husk. Anyone who has given sincere attention to the accounts and writings of genuine mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, Ibn ‘Arabi, or Plotinus, cannot fail to see that a higher consciousness, which encompasses both the Infinite Source of Being and the human individual, is possible.
This consciousness, as a direct and authentic experience, does not depend for its existence on theological or religious doctrine. Indeed, mystics say that this consciousness itself clarifies and illuminates doctrine.
Religions, as theological and social structures built around the realisations of their founders, must accommodate themselves to and address the traditions and customs of the cultures in which they evolve. Had Jesus been born in a Chinese manger or had Buddha been enlightened while sitting under Newton’s apple tree, the religions that followed in their wake would have been far different affairs. In order to better understand the current state of Islam, a brief look at its origin and evolution is in order.
There is no question that Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was a profound mystic whose lot it was to be born into a Bedouin tribal society shaped by intense family ties, trading routes, localised pagan gods, and relatively primitive cultural forms. The Qur’anic message, articulated by Muhammad in poetic Arabic, was received in discreet parts over the course of 22 years – years marked by attacks on the Prophet and his small band of followers by other hostile tribes.
Muhammad’s communion with the Real was called upon to provide guidance to the Muslims as they struggled to defend their faith amidst war and social chaos. As observed by some Qur’anic scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, some passages of the Qur’an are addressed to a specific time and place, while others are of a more universal nature. This is important to note, as it accounts for some of the seeming contradictions between verses, as well as the problems that arise when verses are quoted out of context. But in any event, the Qur’an’s identity as a dialogue with the Supreme Being is so intertwined with the circumstances of its birth that, to this day, Muslims only consider a Qur’an to be the Qur’an if it is in its original Arabic. All translations into other languages are merely “interpretations” and inexact facsimiles.
This is an admirable attempt to preserve fidelity in transmission, though one wonders if even this devotion to the original text isn’t a case of closing the barn door after the mule is gone. For the special value of a living mystic or prophet is the dynamic nature of their expression of the Real, to which they have access. The Qur’an’s words in the absence of Muhammad’s living interpretation, like Jesus’s parables without his own commentary, are susceptible to a dogmatic crystallisation induced by the limited understanding of later followers who risk mistaking their own piety for insight.
One early attempt within Islam to head off a decline in religious practice following Muhammad’s death, was the collection and preservation of hadiths (quotations from the Prophet), among which are the hadiths qudsi (Prophetic quotations conveying messages from God, given outside of Qur’anic passages). Hadiths typically contain testimonies, by the Prophet’s companions, of Muhammad’s suggestions and judgments on the details of daily life and specific questions of practice, law or family concerns. The hadiths qudsi are understood to provide an extra-Qura’nic source of Divine guidance. A secondary source of information is the “Sunna,” a recording of the Prophet’s own personal habits and practices, including quite intimate reports by his wives.
Unfortunately, even preserving the specifics of the Prophet’s interpretations, insights and behaviours still finds them anchored to their time and place. At the same time, there is much dispute over various hadiths’ authenticity, with many being suspected of later manufacture for partisan purposes.
Islam’s institutionalisation, once the Prophet was gone, saw Muhammad defined as the most perfect exemplar of Islam, with all questions of right behaviour and scriptural meaning referred back to his own statements and behaviour, or to the Qur’an. The best means that later Ulema (scholars and jurists) could suggest in rendering decisions was “analogy” and “consensus of the community” – processes that have left little room for creative insights or inspired interpretations.
Because Muhammad served his community as resident mystic, prophet, commander in chief, and social arbiter, Islam – again, in taking him as its exemplar – developed an ideal of theocratic rule as its civilisation grew. As in Medieval Christianity, there was little sense of separate spheres for religion and civil society – Islam was “a way of life.” The combined figure of Sultan (Ruler) and Caliph (Religious leader), though hardly consistent throughout the succession of Islamic empires, was in place in the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire, only to collapse along with the implosion of the Ottomans following WWI. The Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in his effort to constitute a secular Turkish republic on the ruins of the Empire.
The inroads made by European colonialism in the waning decades of the Ottomans, and particularly post-WWI, helped stir the pot of Arab nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and radical Islam, all of which arose in response to the splintering of Islamic civilisation. There was no single Islamic solution put forth that commanded universal support. A multitude of Islams, ethnic nationalisms, and dictatorial regimes carried the day.
It is this sequence of events that brings us to the present reality of a decentralised and dispirited Islamic world mourning its former glories, riven along nationalist and sectarian lines, resentful of previous Western colonialism, and defensive towards an encroaching globalisation that promises to be more pervasive and invasive than mere colonialism ever was.
The lightning rod for Muslim resentment towards this state of affairs has come to be symbolised, for better or worse, in the creation of Israel, in what was previously Palestine. What was seen by Jews as a refuge from Nazi persecution, and by the Zionists as the fulfilment of a scriptural and political dream, was seen by many Muslims as an exclusionary Western wedge, achieved by Haganah, Irgun, and Stern Gang terrorism: an ethnically-defined state disenfranchising its former residents, and a surrogate for the present Western superpower, the USA. The Israeli/Palestinian blood-feud, terrible enough in itself, has metastasised throughout the Muslim body, taxing the Islamic immune system, and readily diagnosed as the underlying Western cancer which can be blamed for every painful social malady.
As stated at the beginning, ironies abound. The very virtue that enables millions of Muslims to feel a brotherhood across national and racial divides – the sense of an Umma (community) of believers – also fuels the presumption of extremist Islamic terrorists to represent the whole of Islam in their assault on the West. In truth, bin Laden and Co. (or Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah) no more represent Islam than the judicially-selected Bush regime represents the whole of Western democracy. Behind each camp’s stated purposes and PR, loom the reptilian brain’s Will to Power – the opposite of the mystic’s realisation and of the stated goal of most religions: surrender to the will of God.
Religion, devoid of the mystic’s link to the Real, may not save us – in fact when religion is used as a rationale to wage political warfare, it may condemn us to a hell on earth of its own creation. But that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on the spiritual impulse toward realisation and human perfection that lies at the root of religion. The survival of Sufism within the broader confines of Islam is a significant case in point.
Sufism is a term coined by Western orientalists for the mystical path in Islam, commonly known as tasawwuf by Muslims. I’ll continue to use it here for the sake of simplicity. Sufism isn’t a sect or subgroup within Islam, so much as it is an expression of the mystical understanding underlying Islam.
Despite Muhammad’s roles of prophet, commander in chief, and social arbiter, it was his vocation as mystic that preceded and subsumed his other responsibilities. According to Sufi tradition, Muhammad acknowledged Ali, his nephew and son in law, as his spiritual successor, i.e., as the one Muslim within his inner circle who had also been blessed with a potent mystical awakening. Because the roles of spiritual and political leader had been combined in Muhammad, they became the object of the power struggles following the Prophet’s death. Those struggles eventually resulted in the division between Sunni and Shia Islam, though that need not concern us here. Suffice it to say, that for most Sufis, Ali represents the continuation of the mystical impulse within Islam, and nearly all Sufi brotherhoods trace their initiatory lineage back to Ali.
The operating premise of Sufism is that the mystical consciousness (but not the Prophetic role) of the Prophet and Ali is possible for others. The encounter with the Real – in which the dynamic paradox of the Infinite and the finite, the Absolute and the particular is known and experienced – is not relegated to the distant past or possessed by a designated few, but is within the capacity of everyone, should they so desire.
Authentic mystics have usually occupied a position in tension with established religion, because their dynamic relationship with the Infinite has often placed them at cross-purposes to the theological certainties promulgated by religious authorities. It is to Islam’s credit that it made more room for its mystics than did Christianity, its chief rival. This leeway was sometimes due to the patronage of Sultans who were interested in tasawwuf, and sometimes due to the popular support that some saints enjoyed. This is not to say that Sufis were always honoured or even tolerated. They were sometimes persecuted as heretics, executed or merely silenced; but whether welcomed or deplored, they were able to pass along their wisdom and methods from generation to generation.
The predominant means of this transmission was through Sufi brotherhoods or Orders (tariqas) – caretakers of continuous lines of teaching methods derived from the founding inspiration of a particular mystic. Unlike Christian contemplative monastic orders that demanded celibacy and a sequestered life, the Sufi tariqas were generally composed of everyday people, with families and outside professions. Thus, up to the present, the Sufis have provided a street-level access to mystical experience.
Jalaluddin Rumi, whose mystical poetry has enjoyed great popularity in the West in recent years, is the best known representative of Sufism. His emphasis on Love as the key entry-point to communion with the Divine has led many people to assume that this is true of all Sufism. However, just as Yoga can be subdivided into several parallel paths to the Divine, including Hatha (physical), Jnana (mental), Bhakti (devotional), etc., so each Sufi order has its own flavour and emphasis, derived from its founding saint. Still, whatever their emphasis or methods, all Sufis share the ultimate goal of a spiritual awakening or “opening,” where the seeker comes to intimate knowledge of the Real.
This may sound terribly remote from anything of practical value, especially if one imagines this awakening to be a state of everlasting bliss which renders its recipient incapable of dealing with mundane affairs. However, Sufism teaches the need for the mystic to “descend” again into daily life, where he can function in normal situations while maintaining an expanded awareness. This is truly the path of Muhammad, who from the mystical point of view stands as exemplar for the “completed human:” one who is both physically and spiritually alive, and able to interpret his own Qur’an.
Such individuals light the way for others, often serving inconspicuously as conduits of inspiration and encouragement. A pharmacist in Istanbul, a shopkeeper in Fez, a poet in Damascus – there is no predicting where one may find those who are called “friends of God.”
Fundamentalist movements originate out of a form of spiritual inspiration themselves. Despairing of the decadence and corruption they perceive in the present expression of their Faith, the fundamentalists – as their name suggests – try to return to the pure fundamentals.
For “religions of the Book” – religions based on revealed scriptures – this commonly takes the form of cleaving even closer to scriptural authority. But rejecting the succeeding centuries of religious evolution, and not privy to dynamic interpretation of the founder or of mystics, the fundamentalists commonly opt for the most literal readings of their holy texts. And when those texts are as ambiguous and nuanced as the Qur’an, this can lead to confusion and incoherence, thinly veiled by rigidity.
The result is a proliferation of mini-Caliphs or Popes, certain of their own purity and the truth of their interpretation, cut off from scholarly commentary and discourse, and contemptuous and dismissive of all who disagree. In eras of profound change and discord, the fundamentalists reduce the Infinite Source of Being to a static icon created in their own image, in a tragic reversal of the creative process.
Those who kill and terrorise in the name of God demonstrate their own distance from any real connectedness with the Whole. This is the dilemma of Islam at the dawn of the 21st century. The Umma of believers are themselves held hostage by the terrorists who claim to represent them. As Zia Sardar has written in The Observer (UK - Sept 23, 2001): “. . . all good and concerned Muslims are implicated in the unchecked rise of fanaticism in Muslim societies. . . . We have been silent as they proclaim themselves martyrs, mangling beyond recognition the most sacred meaning of what it is to be a Muslim. . . . The terrorists are among us, the Muslim communities of the world. . . . And it is our duty to stand up against them.”
The Prophet affirmed that “Allah’s Mercy supersedes his Wrath.” (Hadith al-Qudsi). One can only hope that the moderate Muslim majority will draw upon the wisdom of those within their own tradition who know that Mercy intimately and find the courage to stand up.