Spirituality is a fascinating experience that permeates all categories of caste, creed, and religion in the quest for reaching the ultimate truth. In the common vocabulary, people often use spirituality and religion interchangeably. It is important to realize that religion is one of the many paths that leads to pure spirituality. Our collective history holds numerous examples of this fact. There were a number of wanderers, anarchists who reached the zenith of spiritual realizations.
Moving to Indic traditions, there is even a branch of karma yoga. Karma yoga or selfless action is a major path to attain liberation of the soul. It’s high time we revisit the idea of spirituality and start to look at it from a different perspective.
Mysticism and World Religions
Over the years, all the major religions have evolved to a great extend. The current organized structure of the religions is not an overnight phenomenon. Different schools of thought, ritualistic diversities have enriched the idea of religion as we see now. At the core, mysticism is the seed of any religious tradition and could be considered as its crude form.
In popular culture, mysticism is understood as a state of divine ecstasy. But it is much deeper than what we perceive. It is a quest and deep longing of the soul to dissolve into the creator. Mystics often use bizarre techniques to experience this union. These techniques are,
- Inward techniques – mystics closes their contact from the outer world by shutting down five senses. They enter long periods of silence and deep meditative states.
- Outward techniques- on the other hand, the practice may take a complete inversion and manifest in laughter, dance, and songs.
Mystical traditions are the souls of every religion. Hassidism, Franciscan spirituality and Sufism are examples of such traditions within the established religions.
Sufism- Islamic Mysticism
Sufism is the essence of Islam. The seed that enriched the word Islam that means complete submission to God almighty. It derives from the word ‘tasswuf’ meaning wool in Arabic, the fabric commonly worn by early mystics.
The Sufi thought process is fueled by an intense aspiration to be closer to the one god Allah. The various traditions under Sufism identify themselves as tariqas or orders. This classification is primarily based on their practices and place of origin. Each tariqa has a master and numerous disciples. Irrespective of these traditions each Sufi sect claims their legitimacy from the verses of the Quran. “I created the Jinns and humankind only that they worship me” (Quran 51:56).
The evolution of Islam led to an emphasis on certain religious practices than actual devotion to Allah. Sufism urges every Muslim to establish a personal relationship with the creator. This is achieved through personal prayers and contemplation as opposed to usual rituals. It negates the material possessions and man’s never-ending quest for power and dominance.
Sufism and Spirituality
Sufi spirituality draws its legitimacy from Islamic traditions, hadith, and the holy Quran. But it is normally divergent from the strict religious practices of the Sharia. The emphasis on the inward journey or soul-searching has often rendered an ecstatic element to it. The Sufi philosophy identifies many such elevated states such as fanaa (realization), Haal (state of awakening), etc.
It differentiates the human body into physical form, soul, and the astral body. But the soul or ‘rooh’ is given prime importance. The Sufi practices and the guidance by the spiritual master are oriented towards elevating the soul to Allah the Almighty God. The body is often considered as the projection of the soul and is secondary. This thought process is in line with the Buddhist traditions captured in the saying “mind creates matter”.
Sufi literature is a vast treasure of its spirituality capturing the souls’ longing to be one with the master creator. Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Al Hallaj, Rabia Al Basra, etc are some of the most prominent Sufi mystics who are popular among the east and west alike. Their teachings are captured in poems that allegorical in nature. These poems are the easiest way for a person to understand the aspects of Sufi spirituality.
Spiritual Practices in Sufism
Different traditions in Sufism follow a set of practices that help their followers to achieve the ultimate union with God. ‘Wahadat’ is the term used for depicting this union. Renunciation of material benefits and the constant urge to purify the souls marks the basis of Sufi practices. The various Sufi practices for Wahadat are,
a) Dhikr- the word stands for remembrance. Consistent practice of remembering and reciting Allah’s 99 names is an age-old practice for attaining union with God. This practice takes inspiration from the verse in the Holy Quran “But when the prayer is ended, disperse in the land and seek Allah’s bounty. Always remember Allah much so that you may prosper” (Quran 62:10). They use special beaded rosaries for counting the recitation of names.
b) Sama- is an expressive form of Dhikr that includes songs, chanting, and dance movements. The Arabic word means listening. In recent times Sama is the most identified form of Sufi practice that became popular through movies and art forms. The whirling dervishes of the Mevlana Sufi order are popularly used as the icon depicting contemporary Sufism. But for the mystics, it is their intense expression of closeness to God. Each physical movement in Sama has a unique symbolic meaning.
c) Reading Scriptures – like other practicing Muslims, Sufis also revere the holy Quran. They adopt a meditative reading style of the Quran, going beyond the literal meaning of the verses. Apart from the Quran, Hadiths (traditions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and the teachings of Sufi masters are also recited and studied thoroughly by the mystics.
d) Practicing compassion – the Allah centric life enables a Sufi with deep compassion. As per the symbolism of whirling dervishes, the Sufis are the channel that receives direct blessings from Allah. These blessings are distributed to fellow beings. The practice of frugality and charity activities forms a major part of this mystical lifestyle.
It is worth mentioning that all the aforementioned practices enable a Sufi with the chance to remember and spent time with his/her creator. This inward spiritual pilgrimage draws them closer to God.
In contemporary popular culture, Sufism is mostly understood as philosophical thought. After the translations of the works of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi in English, the basic idea of Sufism has received a lot of attention. But many original Sufi practitioners consider that most of the aspects of Sufi mysticism are now increasingly commercialized.
Online Sufi retreats, books on every day Sufi practice have reduced it to the status of other self-help or inspirational category. They claim that Sufism can’t be reduced to a capsule and used as an instant remedy for existential problems. It is truly a way of life that draws a person closer to God.
In mainstream Islamic theology, Sufism is considered as an outlier.
Traditional Islamic scholars reject the flexible and joyful elements of Sufism and often brand it as un-Islamic. According to them the aspect of dancing and singing in praise of the creator is prohibited in Islam. Nevertheless, Sufis continue to seek their creator with an open heart, dancing to the tunes of their master. They are unshaken as Rumi puts it “It’s your road and yours alone. Others may walk it with you. But no one can walk it for you”.