Questions on Religion


1 Sufism ; what is it ?

2 Sufism, Mysticism, Esoterism




Sufism is Islamic mysticism. As such, it has the special disitinction of being found in the sunnite as well as the shiite traditions of Islam. It is extremely difficult to attempt a description of Sufism. Like all forms of mysticism, it is above all the search for God and this search may be expressed in many different ways, taking various forms. On the other hand, by reason of its esoteric aspects ; it introduces secret practices, initiation rites that vary depending on the masters who teach them.

In spite of Sufism claiming to be strictly muslim, traditional Islam, both sunnite as well as shiite, looks upon Sufism with the greatest distrust.

In Iran , the vast majority of the mullahs are strongly opposed to it and in sunnite Islam, most of the Ulemas are much more interested in the letter of the Koran and its juridical interpretations than in the speculations of the Sufis which to them are highly suspect. In the face of such widespread opposition Sufism keeps a low profile.

Furthermore, there is no unity in Sufism. Each master gathers together a band of disciples drawn by the reputation of his teaching. At most, these masters admit to belonging to a " confraternity ", itself founded by a famous Sufi in bygone ages. As soon as reference is made to Islam, nobody checks any orthodoxy whatever in the teaching given.

The importance of this secret Islam is nonetheless remarkable. Historically, it played a major role in giving rise to the deviations of the Shiah doctrine known as Ismaëlism and the Druse religion. In literature it had a profound influence on the inspiration of some of the most outstanding Arabo-Persian works like the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights and the love poem of Leyla and Majnoon.

However, the most original aspect of Sufism is its spirituality. In the Sufi view, God is approached by degrees. Firstly, the law of the Koran must be respected ; but this is only a first step which does not lead to the understanding of the nature of the world. The rituals are of no use if one doesn’t know their hidden meaning. It is only through an initiation that one is enabled to see behind the appearance of things. For example, Man is a microcosm , a world in miniature, in which the image of the universe is to be found, the macrocosm. So it is quite natural that in deepening one’s knowledge of man one should arrive at an understanding of the world which is already a step towards God.

According to the Sufis, all existence comes from God and God alone is real. The created world is but a reflection of the Divine ; " the universe is the Shadow of the Absolute ". The ability to discern God behind the screen of things implies purity of soul. It is only through an effort to withdraw from the world that one can approach God :

" Man is a mirror which, when polished, reflects God. "

The God that the Sufis discover is a God of love and the way to him is through Love : " whoever knows God, loves him ; whoever knows the world turns away from him. " " If you wish to be free, become a prisoner of Love. "

This is not unfamiliar music to the ears of the Christian mystics. In this respect, it is curious to note the similarities between Sufism and other philosophic or religious trends. Originally, Sufism was influenced by Pythagorean thought and by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. The Sufi initiation rite , which opens up the possibility of a spiritual rebirth, is not entirely unlike Christian baptism and one could even identify some Buddhist echos in the Sufic formula " man is non-existent before God ".

There is the same diversity and the same imagination in the spiritual techniques of Sufism. The search for God through symbolism, in the case of some Sufis, passes through music or dance which, they believe, transcends thought. This was practised by Djalal ed din Roumi, according to Mevlana, the founder of the whirling dervishes. In the case of other Sufis, symbolism is an intellectual exercice in which one meditates on the numerical value of letters as the Cabbalistic Jews do. Sometimes also, it is through an endless repetition of the invocation of the names of God that the Sufi seeks union with Him.

And so Sufism brings to Islam a poetic and mystical dimension that one could never find in the exegetes’ pernickety analysis of the texts of the Koran. For this reason the latter, irritated by this over-zealous fervour, seek to marginalise Sufism. This is also why the Sufis set such store by their practices and trace them back to the prophet himself. They hold that Mohammed received, at the same time as the Koran, esoteric revelations which he revealed only to some of his companions. In this way, the Sufi masters all link their teaching to a long line of predecessors who give them authenticity.

However, this legitimacy through reference to the prophet does not give rise to uniformity in the Sufi movement. There are many different schools and each one has its own style and practices. In French, these schools are generally designated under the name of confraternities. Before going on to study some of these schools, it is necessary first to keep in mind that the confraternities have become, not an institution, but at least one way of living Islam in a manner so widely accepted that all kinds of movements, mystical or not, assume the title of confraternity in order to practise their activities. One should not therefore be surprised at times to come across rather unmystical confraternities with a rudimentary spirituality that is far removed from the elevated speculations that have made Sufism one of the major components of universal spirituality.

Michel Malherbes, Les Religions de l’Humanité, pages 192-194
Ed. Critérion


Exploring further…


As Michel Malherbes points out in the preceding article, Sufism covers a multitude of very different realities in Islam. We would like to highlight just a few distinctions between " the mystical " and " the esoterical ".

" Mysticism " in the literal sense means living as closely united to God as possible. An example of this can be found in Mary of the Incarnation, a French religious in the 17th century who had been married, had children and was widowed. She had managed a transport business before entering the Ursuline convent. She was then sent to Canada where she built a school for French and Indian girls. She was constantly in union with God, whether at the attorney’s office to sign deeds or with the builders to oversee the construction. Even when, one Winter the building caught fire and it was not possible to extinguish the fire because of the temperature of 20° below freezing which meant the water was frozen, Mary of the Incarnation fell to her knees in the snow and praised God. This is what the mystical life means ; living in constant union with God in the events of daily life, whether one is a religious or a lay person. In a sense, one is already living hidden with God, one has already entered into the endless mystery of eternal life, life with God. King Baudoin of Belgium tried to live his public and private life in this way without giving any sign of failing in the duties of his public responsibilities nor in his conjugal love as a husband.
Understood in this way, mystical life is open to all ; it is a matter of letting God, in love, live in us. As St. Paul says ; it is no longer I but Christ who lives in me. The mystic is not someone whose very person disappears. He or she retains the same character, history, even the same brilliance, and everything that makes the person unique and loveable.

Do all religions have a mystical dimension ? Evidence shows that it is only those who have encountered God as a person and giver of life. In this sense, it is not impossible for Muslims to live a mystical life, whether Sufic or not. Sufism certainly emphasises this union with God. But is this always so in conditions worthy of God and of man ? It is here that the necessity arises of seeing the radical difference between " mysticism " and " esoterism ". For Esoterism effectually turns its back on Mysticism. While mysticism is an opening up to God, to his revelation and his love, esoterism claims to provide the power to acquire God, indeed to become God through one’s own efforts by reaching degrees of " knowledge " reserved for the " initiated " who keep these powers to themselves.

It is surely not difficult to understand that if God really exists He is more " person " than Mankind. He therefore also has a certain freedom. And if He is free to give himself, how could one grasp him through " knowledge " and " inititiation rites ". God can only be reached if it is he who takes the initiative and gives himself ; and if he is then well received.

Esoterism is a willed spiritual power achieved through " secrets " or techniques. Far from liberating man, these secrets and techniques create an artificial spiritualism within which the " man with knowledge " locks himself up. The illusion of " knowing " prevents one from hearing God who reveals himself by speaking to those who are sufficiently humble to want to know him as he himself tells us he is. And so some people enclose themselves in a theory of numerology ; others in the various boxes of determinist characterology ; yet others in horoscope columns ; others in meditation techniques.

The true God makes man free and he offers his friendship to all, not only to a few initiates. " Since he clings to me, I rescue him, I raise him high since he acknowledges my name. He calls to me and I answer him : " Ps. 91 : vv.14-15 This God entered into human history by the door of humble folk, by becoming a little child, in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.

Hervé Marie Catta

Questions on Life