The Sufi Mystical Path (tasawwuf)

I bear witness that there is no reality but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah

The Sufi path (tasawwuf) is not about having anomalous, mysterious experiences and the unveiling of lights, but, rather, the Sufi way is directed toward learning how to worship the Truth.

All the rest is nothing but machinations of the ego and its conceits.

Nine Questions: An Interview - Part 3

The individual who e-mailed the following questions was doing a school project on religion and was interested in finding out about the Sufi tradition.

Question 6) What are some Sufi practices?

The short answer to this question is as follows. (A) Disciplining the nafs or carnal soul or ego through various kinds of austerities such as fasting, seclusion, or keeping the night vigil. (B) Polishing the spiritual heart through zikr Allah or the remembrance of Divinity through repetitions or the chanting of any of the 99 Names of God. (C) Emptying the sirr of preoccupations with the world by means of contemplative exercises. Once, God willing, the sirr becomes emptied, it is capable of guarding the heart from anything other than the remembrance of Allah. (D) Traversing the spiritual stations of the heart such as longing, fear, gratitude, patience, sincerity, dependence, and love through one's nisbath or relationship with, and service to, the shaykh.

The foregoing notwithstanding, one must understand that none of these practices are sufficient unto themselves. One, for example, could chant until the cows come home or until hell freezes over, and if this zikr were not supported and accepted by Allah, one would go absolutely nowhere. Consequently, these practices are often seen as necessary but not sufficient conditions for attaining spiritual realization.

Some Sufi Orders also use spiritual music or sacred turning (e.g., the so-called 'whirling dervishes' of Turkey's Mevlevi Order ) to help bring about, God willing, various spiritual states. Or, sometimes these processes help heal various maladies of the soul and heart through one's participation in them.

Question 7) What is the process of being initiated or becoming an 'official' Sufi?

The answer to this question can vary with the Sufi Order being considered. Some of these initiation processes can be very involved and ritual-laden. Others may be very simple.

The essence of any of these processes, irrespective of whatever surface differences that may distinguish them, is the contract of nisbath or relationship between seeker and spiritual guide. Each of the people is obligating oneself to the other in various ways.

The seeker is indicating his or her willingness to sincerely attempt to learn from, and implement, in one's personal life, the values, commitments, practices, beliefs, and so on which characterize the Sufi journey as delineated and exhibited by the shaykh. The seeker is further committing herself or himself to be loyal to the process of instruction.

The teacher, on the other hand, is committing himself or herself to look after, and attend to, engendering, with God's support and blessings, the development and health of the inner, spiritual life of the seeker. Furthermore, the shaykh is committed to working diligently and constantly to assist the individual, God willing, to the end to the spiritual journey.

Question 8) How do Sufis receive their "Sufi names"?

First of all, it is not absolutely necessary to change one's name after stepping onto the Sufi path, although, in the West, there are many who do this in an attempt to have a concrete, palpable touchstone of starting out on a new, different journey from what has transpired previously in their lives. Usually, the way this is done is that the shaykh opens the Qur'an - seemingly at "random"-- and according to a certain method of selection, settles on the first root or word which can form the basis for constructing an acceptable name.

The belief is, of course, that this is not a random process and that God has led the shaykh to just this name as being most appropriate for the initiate. Moreover, since the name has special significance in as much as it has come from one of the Books of Revelation, the meaning and barakah associated with this name is believed to play a role in the spiritual life of the individual.

Sometimes, a spiritually inappropriate name may be chosen by this method in conjunction with some non-Sufi context. For example, maybe the person converted to Islam before stepping onto the Sufi path and was given a name at the time of becoming Muslim which, say, weighed too heavily on the individuals's physical and spiritual being. Upon initiation, shaykhs sometimes have been known to change the initial name to something else which will not have the adverse effect on the person as the original name did such as making the person particularly vulnerable to certain kinds of physical ailment and the like.

Question 9) Do you have any idea on how widespread sufism is?

I do not have any quantitative statistics, but in all likelihood, there is not a country anywhere on Earth which does not have one or more authentic practitioners of the Sufi path. Nonetheless, however large or small this total number of current followers of the Sufi path may be, it is diminishingly small compared to the number of people who journeyed along the mystical dimension of Islam in earlier years.

Indeed, the number of people who follow the Sufi path will continue to drop as we approach the latter days prior to the Day of Judgement. In fact, the last saint on Earth, who will be a descendent of the Prophet Seth (peace be upon him), will spend his entire life calling people to Islam and the Sufi path but no one on Earth will heed the call.

Sometimes what happens, however, is that someone who has not made a final decision about what to do about the 'Islam-thing' may, by the Grace of God, be given a mystical experience. Unfortunately, some people proceed to interpret this to mean that one does not have to be Muslim in order to undergo mystical experiences.

The foregoing conclusion is most assuredly true, as far as it goes, since God gives to Whomsoever Divinity chooses, and can give without stint or reservation. But, what is problematic with such an understanding is the belief which often accompanies it which stipulates that these sorts of mystical things will continue to happen or that spiritual progress can continue to be made outside of the fold of Islam, and, therefore, there really is no need to become Muslim. This belief is, most assuredly, incorrect.

Given that the Sufi path can be a very long and difficult journey, having a few authentic experiences does not necessarily mean anything other than that the Divine touch of barakah has entered into such a person's life for a short while, or, possibly, a little longer. If one, for instance, were to speculate, arbitrarily, that 2000 mystical experiences were necessary to complete the mystical journey (and, things do not work this way on the Sufi path) before one would undergo both fana and baqa, then even if one were to have 500 authentic experiences, one still would have three-quarters of the path lying before one.

Consequently, even if one were to arbitrarily speculate that it were possible to travel one-quarter of the spiritual distance necessary to reach the goal of the Sufi mystical quest without becoming Muslim in any formal sense, one still would become stuck at this one-quarter water mark and not be able to travel further along the Sufi spiritual path.

If the purpose of someone stepping onto the mystical path is to realize the object of that quest, then having come only one-quarter of the way toward that goal is as good as being a googleplex of spiritual light years away from the desired spiritual destination. Whatever mystical experiences one may have had and whatever spiritual capacities one may have acquired, by the grace of God, within that one quarter of the way spiritual journey, these are worthless when considered in relation to the primary goal of the Sufi path.

| Interview - Part One |

| Interview - Part Two |

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