Sufism is a life philosophy based on mysticism: Man and the cosmos’ creation, the reason of existence, and asserting a continuous maturation and enlightenment which leads to understanding the reasons behind it all. The etymology of Sufism may differ according to each core belief. In fact, it is a philosophy beyond all the religions and the beliefs. Moreover, it is hard to explain the meaning of Sufism with religious and mystic terms because throughout history Sufism existed together with mysticism.
Is Sufism a religion, a philosophy or mysticism? When this question was asked to Inayet Khan, he expounded, “All three. If you want to understand religion via Sufism, it’s a religion; if you want to get wisdom, it’s a philosophy; and if you want it to guide you in the evolution of the spirit then it’s mysticism. In fact, Sufism is something beyond these three.”
This explanation shows Sufism non-exclusive to a certain belief. Conversely, all Sufi beliefs, including Islamic Sufism, and research were born as a response to orthodox attitudes of classical, organized and conservative religions. It aims to transform religion to its original form. Middle Eastern based religions and beliefs are dualist; whereas, Sufism has monist roots and based in the Far East. Eastern mysticism should be well understood before analyzing Sufism. Sufism is also thought to be affected by the Ancient Egypt civilization. Of course, while affected by Ancient Egypt, the reverse is also true. Yet, Sufism cannot be attributed to any place or any belief due to its universality. You can learn about Sufism without holding any belief system.
To perceive Sufism best, we should understand Sufi terminology. Some words and concepts that we use daily may have special and important meanings in Sufism. For example, some verses of İbn’ul Ferid explains that Sufism existed before systemized religions: “We drank from the wine of our lover and became drunk…Before the vineyard was created…”
Here the vineyard represents the school and the system (the established system), and the wine represents what befuddles our minds. The wine may either relax or cloud our minds; what determines the quality of the wine is the one who tastes it. If all three are consistent, then the wine can be the “wine of love.” The ones who don’t drink this wine cannot reach “The Unity of Existence”; whereas, those who reach this consciousness will have a rebirth and reach a higher mental level with no constraint of time and space. As a result the Sufi will realize when they’ve reached awareness.
The most widespread Sufi trend has been the Mevlevi Tradition. There are some other traditions, but these and a few others moved away from the source, and thus, corrupted. Corruption occurred because these traditions were affected by the scholasticism and rituals of the religions.
As Sufism is a dynamic and renewing trend, the modern Sufis are naturally the ones who know or understand science, technology and the social sciences. Among the contemporary Sufis, we know names like Meher Baba, Inayet Khan, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Nicoll, and Fred Alan Wolf, known as Dr. Quantum.
Sufism does not try to prove the fallacy of duality, but intends to show duality in all of its expressions and achieves this through stories, sayings, symbols and allegories. It interrogates the disunity of the mind. It disciplines the mind with love, directs the mind to the heart and shows inner depth will be possible with accurate observation. This means Sufism is more patient when compared with Zen.
On the path of Sufism, you can find more wholeness, assimilate these aspects and reach the reality of unity. Then, you can replace your fears with “the enthusiasm of being ONE.” Your life becomes more meaningful, and you realize that speed accelerates your transformation toward universal consciousness. You can finally see that the whole religion and its beliefs are only tools; their rules, rituals and dogmas somewhat hinder and make us forget the basic goal. Since these rules are so strict, they imprison the mind and become dogmas which prevent us from seeing the real goal.
The true religion hides in the inner consciousness; the goal of the Sufi is to reach ONE with existence. If beliefs are “injected” and supported by institutions and people, it cannot be argued. In organized religions, true searching doesn’t exist. In Sufism, the source of the conscious belief lies within the depth of the man. The need to believe cannot be discounted; however, the exploitation of this need and trying to condition it becomes the real mistake. The mystics purified themselves from the ego as much as possible by being free and objective. On the other hand, Sufism uses a natural piety that devotes itself to unconditional love by knowing oneself and the belief that going beyond the mind enlightens.
Time Concept in Sufism
Sufis believe that the mind has been created in “time” and consciousness in infinity. Therefore, the mind obsesses to perceive the infinite and limitless total consciousness because of its addiction to time and space to understand reality—a common understanding from Bodhidharma to Arabi and from Krishnamurti to Wolf. When we examine the religions, we clearly see how all these things match: Christ said, “You will go where there is no time,” and in Islam, God is known as being “free from time and space.”
In Sufism, we see these traces of infinity—existence is continuous and infinite. Nothing is lost. On the contrary, things only change their names and forms in Taoism and Buddhism.
When we feel hopeless and life becomes meaningless, it is clear there is something wrong and our mind tricks us. Those who achieve the river of life with consciousness can overcome these obstacles and never face such negative states of mind.
A Sufi is not interested in the past like a Zen member; a Sufi’s motto is “Now is time to say new things.” The infinite life is now! The past is gone and tomorrow has not yet arrived. It is in vain to talk and feel grief about what has passed or not yet arrived. A Sufi continually celebrates life in gratitude. A Sufi should be integrated with life and know life moves on, which makes it easier to respect and love every living thing. This way life can be accepted as it is and developed; never-ending fears trick the mind but when stopped, the joy of living increases and even our entire life becomes a joy and a meditation. This is the philosophy of real Sufis. We all mean God if we view life, whether named or not, according to Lao Tzu’s “Tao,” Buddha’s “great emptiness,” Gurdjieff’s “transcendent energy” and Wolf’s “infinite energy ocean.” However, if we symbolize and try to individualize God even to glorify, there may be a danger of departing from divine reality.
The Individual in Sufism
Almost all religions aim to make us a part of an ordinary society ruled by organized beliefs. Foremost in Sufism, however, you are an individual—a total value by yourself. You do not feel any pressure to your identity which gives you freedom. You believe and trust in yourself, not to any belief or its custom-made commitments. When you believe in yourself, you feel happy and strong; thereafter, feeling pure love becomes easier.
The Sufis believe that sorrow and grief live together in us with the seeds of love and desire, and whichever we feed and care for grows. Transformation should be an inner dynamic, the same as perception and interpretation. If outer dynamics impose the change, this will only nourish the mind and not the consciousness. With an unpurified and restrained mind, the outer dynamics will not contribute to evolution.
Ferideddin-i Attar, one of the great Sufis who inspired Mevlana, mentioned two themes in his book Mantık-ut Tayr—“the journey of evolution” and “search”—in which he wrote about the mental and conscious development and perfection of spirit. If the religious culture and the traditions of his time gave him all the answers, would he “search” for something? In fact, he was marginalized by Islamic Law. A Sufi’s main characteristics never prescribe regulations, systemize their worldviews, and never impose anything on their followers. The Sufis never act like clergy; on the contrary, they communicate their teachings via stories, allegories, music, poems and even through dance.
The Journey of the Soul
Without a loving existence, Sufism cannot be understood. They believe that the human journey continually progresses and this journey could not be possible if we didn’t stay awake. As mentioned in many poems, being “drunken” is the trance-like state that reality creates in our minds. As long as this state of mind continues, the more mature we become. What is mentioned here is not the physical drunkenness due to alcoholic beverages or narcotic drugs, but a state of wisdom which is also a reflection of love, sympathy and blessing as a result of perceiving the secrets of existence. However, one should not forget life and worldly matters, but the mind should be open to consciousness. The Sufis are warm and sincere. They oppose the idea of acting “different than they are” and also object to “hypocrisy” which is just “a show of deceiving love and respect.”
The level of maturity in Sufism is similar to the evolutionary understanding of Buddha, Zen’s System of Chakras, and Gurdjieff’s definitions of qualified energy consumption. The individual with an ordinary mind obeys the beginning rules and the advice for wisdom before the exercise. In the second stage, he begins to think about the causality of the nature and so his perception level improves one step up. In the third stage, the “eye of his heart” opens and he begins to use his mind freely, makes original evaluations and can get involved in discussions with the dervishes. As a result, he begins to be aware of some realities which cannot be perceived by ordinary people. The two ending stages are “involvement in existence” and finally, “to be ONE.” After reaching the level of perfect man, which is called “Insan-ı Kamil” (The Evolved Man) in Sufism, he ends his relation with the physical and mental world and reaches the Wahdat al-Shuhud which means “unity of existence.” The next stages cannot yet be understood by people here.
Peace and Love
In the expressions of Sufis from different religious cultures, you can observe the traces of these beliefs because a real Sufi never creates conflict with others when going forward on their path. This does not mean that they do not criticize but they don’t fight; they respect all opinions, may criticize and be criticized, but in the end, they apologize and please their opponent. A Sufi is tolerant to every opinion because of the knowledge that everything in this world can be imperfect and misleading. A Sufi is an opponent of violence and terror like a Buddhist and approaches life as the real Christ. His aim is never to force anyone to accept any opinion but to go forward on his own path with his love and gratitude toward existence. That means Sufis are not like the clergy or missionaries. A Sufi is a partisan of peace and Sadi reflects this with these words: “There is no need to let blood, even if they gave you the whole world.” Moreover, Sufism is so tolerant that they claim, “The paths to God are as numerous as the souls of created beings.”
What is meant by “love” in Sufism is “divine love” and Sufis call it “light.” The ones who are on the way to enlightenment can only be aware of it. Sufis view the world as a reflection of the infinite existence in the mirror just like all creation. What is seen in the mirror cannot be reality itself, but only a reflection. Furthermore, the mirrors never show the whole picture. That’s why, love is not the desire and the addiction felt towards created beings but the sympathy and devotion to the creator of all created beings. The goal is to walk on that path and to be ONE with the Creator. This is “Divine Love”; others may be referred to as “Metaphorical Love” according to the Sufis. The perception, knowledge and sympathy of the individual can only increase by as much as their evolution on the path of divine love.
Clearly today, the people open to love and freedom cannot be members of rigid religious systems. For a Sufi, life is not a battle field but an opportunity “for evolution and enlightenment.” Even if real Sufis grew up in places where certain beliefs rule, they never become slaves to the established beliefs and a part of such systems. They were always respectful to the cultural history, but as they were opponents of the system, the political governments, who were the fanatics of the established beliefs, always threatened, blamed and condemned them. That’s why the Sufis never get actively involved in politics.
As we tried to explain above, Sufism is a matter of “natural piety.” Instead of being a member of a religion or a belief, it supports being “on the path of evolution.” Osho also explains that “Christ is a piety, not a Christian; for me he is a Sufi. Buddha is not a Buddhist, but a piety; for me he is a Sufi too. Sufi is who perceives the basics of the religion and eliminates the unnecessary details.” Sufis also say the same thing that “Sufism is deeper than the religion!”
The Destiny in Sufism
Sufism never glorified destiny but always supposed that man can evolve through his mind, strength and efforts, and can also determine the direction of his life, can change his life. It is existentialist not fatalist. Today, it confirms that after living part of our lives and if we can use this life better, we can climb up to a higher step of development. Although it was forbidden by their cultural theologies, all great Sufis believed in reincarnation and even perceived this as a requirement and mercy of infinite justice of existence. According to Sufis, if the cosmos is infinite, if the life is continuous and if the conscious is immortal, then evolution should be a necessary and continuous process too. Although biology, physiology and spiritual evolution ideas are denied by Middle East based religions, this is highly valued in Sufism.
The Value of the Soul
The Sufi expressions have lots of propositions and metaphors which are similar to the symbolism of ancient Far East beliefs. The river of life, the wine of love, the eye of the heart, the light of the enlightenment, the continuous evolution, the causality of nature and its dialectic, inner self, etc., are only a few examples.
Today, what we must establish an environment where the physics and metaphysics can work arm-in-arm, so we do not go wrong in our inner journey. First of all, we should go beyond our virtual beings and reach our real self as in the verse: “there is a self in myself, inner and inner.” The most serious barrier that prevents us from reaching this level is the “ego” which nestles all kinds of unnecessary burdens.
All desires, passions and ambitions also come from our spiritual side. These show that the subjective soul looks for some material and relative values for getting satisfaction. When we immerse ourselves in the mental world, why do we need to exalt the subjective soul and the realm of the less-evolved souls? Thinking that the main divine element is the evolution of the spirit would be a wrong or inadequate explanation. Exalting it too much would also be wrong because a correct analysis should be given to the subjective spirit together with the spiritual structure.
The Anatolian Sufism
In general, Sufism, and especially the Anatolian Sufism, is so contemporary that even hundreds of years ago it implied that enlightenment was not possible through static instruments such as organized religions, fanaticism, dogma and unconscious beliefs. Trying to understand infinity with finite means is impossible. So, we have two options: We shall be mystics by going after our essence given to us from infinity (from the “infinite energy ocean” as it is called today) or we shall be atheists by accepting our doom as a nihilist. The ancillary roads between these two are synthetic and compulsive adaptations which try to reconcile existence and non-existence, infinite and finite. Mental laziness and an ignorant acceptance remain for many people who accept such synthetic and simple ways without thinking. Without being conscious enough, going from the material to the spiritual or the reverse is not an intelligent solution. As Mevlana pointed out, “A bird with one wing will not be able to fly.”
Anatolian Sufism succeeded in a very important way never achieved in any other place: It maintained a broad tolerance, did not care about tiny differences between beliefs, displayed no conflict with established belief systems, and sometimes even receive benefits from these and gave good news that the individual will be enlightened through time.
Sufism is a piety which is not related to any religion.
To clarify, while Sufism is not a secret teaching, it is closed to outside aspects. That’s why, some researchers and religion historians write about Sufism, not the Sufis. As a result, some wrong and misleading ideas occurred about Sufism.
Instead of reading the comments of religion historians, who depart from Sufi insight, we advise you to delve into authentic sources of Sufism.