The Sufi Path

Sufism is considered to be the nucleus of the Islamic tradition, whereas the legalistic and ritualistic aspect of Islam is considered to be the periphery or exterior of Islam. Before embarking on an explanation of Sufism, one should take into account the exterior aspect of Islam. For one, Islam consists of three dimensions. The first dimension consists of submitting to a set of rules and regulations found in the Quran as well as the biography of the pioneer and prophet of Islam, Muhammad. The second dimension consists of adhering to six articles of faith, namely, belief in God, belief in an afterlife, belief in divine revelation, belief in the prophets who brought divine revelation to mankind, belief in angels, and belief in a predestined outcome for human history, which is economic and social evolution and progress. Finally, the third dimension consists of perfection in the sense that the individual and mankind use their full potential towards the actualization of economic and social evolution in the world. Self-actualization, according to the Holy Quran, equates to a person becoming God’s “vicegerent” on earth.

The individual who embarks on the Sufi path and reaches self-actualization goes through three stages, according to the Sufi mystic Abd al-Karim al-Jili. First, the individual is imbued with love from his surroundings and from a higher power. Second, the individual is imbued with knowledge that consists of both a material and spiritual nature. Third, the individual begins to demonstrate power over other people. Kant’s definition of perfection is similar to the Islamic definition of perfection in the sense that Kant’s definition of perfection consists of two elements, namely, cognitive perfection and aesthetic perfection. The aesthetic form of perfection consists of a spiritual element, and it is this spiritual element that is emphasized by Sufi thought. By addressing the spiritual aspect of evolution, one can then establish a perfect balance between the material and spiritual aspects of man, which is the unstated goal of life in the modern and postmodern epoch.

The word “Sufi” comes from the root Arabic word “safa,” which translates into purity. “Tasawwuf” is the process of becoming a Sufi. Islam in its original form equates to Sufism, in the sense that the most devoted followers of the Prophet Muhammad would gather together in the Prophet’s mosque for prolonged meditation and prayer sessions during the Prophet’s lifetime. Soon after the early epoch of Islamic history when the Prophet and his four closest companions ruled over the Islamic community, Sufi orders or fraternities began to develop along a chain of spiritual guides whose knowledge originated from the Prophet’s closest companion, namely, Ali ibn Abi Talib. It is believed that there are seventy-three Sufi orders in the world, and only one originates from someone other than Ali, namely, the Naqshbandi order which originates from the Prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr As-Siddiq.

Sufis are first initiated into an order by a spiritual guide, who prescribes a set of physical and spiritual exercises in order to ready the initiate for spiritual advancement. Self-reform is first required in Islam before a Sufi ventures into the world to bring about economic and social reform in their society. “Tasawwuf” then consists of four stages. For one, there is “Shariah,” a misrepresented term in the Western world, which consists of submission to a set of rules and regulations that prepare an individual for self-actualization. Second is “Tariqa,” which is the implementation of physical and spiritual exercises necessary for spiritual fulfillment. Third is “Haqiqa,” which is the realization of one’s full potential and the attainment of truth. Fourth, and most importantly, is “Ma’rifa,” which in secular terms equates to self-actualization but in religious terms equates to the acquisition of divine love. In order to achieve “Ma’rifa,” the Sufi must first achieve “Fana,” which is the elimination of worldly characteristics and detachment from worldly desires. Through “Fana,” one acquires “Baqa,” which equates to faith, knowledge, and grace. Ultimately, through “Fana” and “Baqa,” the Sufi reaches “Ma’rifa” and thus self-actualization.

The Sufi who achieves “Ma’rifa” thus has attained the truth about the divine and becomes known as “Arif,” which translates into “the one who knows.” Ma’rifa occurs when the act of knowing and the knower become one, which in secular terms is the goal of the Jungian “individuation process.” In turn, the reconciliation of knowledge and self leads to self-actualization, which is a psychological state that more than 99 percent of the population fails to reach due to Pavlov’s classical conditioning. On average, humans use only 10 percent of their brainpower based in the findings of Dale Carnegie, and if more brainpower were to be used, there would be even greater economic and social progress in the world. As Abraham Maslow demonstrated in his “Hierarchy of Needs,” once basic needs such as food and sexual intimacy are met, one should move onto higher goals such as cognitive and aesthetic perfection through the acquisition of material and spiritual knowledge, which in turn enable the attainment of self-actualization and the utilization of one’s full potential. Whereas Sigmund Freud focused on the ninety-nine percent of the human population that is sick and fixated on the desire for infantile sexuality and fame, Abraham Maslow focused on the 1 percent who were healthy and were on their way to self-actualization and thus the attainment of all that they wanted in life. What Sufism would add to Maslow’s theory is that love is the fuel for the process of self-actualization. Once Ma’rifa is achieved, the individual is then obliged to “help” God bring economic and social evolution and progress to global society as his “vicegerent” on earth.

Moreover, love is the goal of self-actualization in the Sufi tradition. Through denial of the world and its heartbreaks and sorrow, one withdraws from society and thus enters into the Jungian “individuation process” and in turn fosters the cognitive and physical ability to attain all that they really want out of life. As Maslow suggested, people engage with society primarily to make money that would enable them to put food on the table and to mingle socially due to a sexual urge. To deny or mitigate these two impulses would equate to a denial of the world, thus sheltering an individual and facilitating their journey towards self-actualization. As Abraham Lincoln said, when you are alone, you are with God. One song ended with the expression of “life is a game, and love is the prize.” Eventually, anxiety, paranoia, trials, and tribulations start to diminish as one treads the Sufi path. Nevertheless, due to the exigencies of the modern and postmodern world, a person can be emotionally and spiritually detached from the world while engaging with it physically and socially. Thus, the denial of the world in a Sufi sense is essentially a denial of an empirical understanding of the world and the adoption of a phenomenological understanding of the world and its modus operandi. Whereas the empirical understanding of the world is based solely on material gain and calculated schemes for the advancement of one’s social status, the phenomenological and thus Sufi experience is based on the attainment of divine love. Wittgenstein is an example of a scholar who abandoned empirical investigations to embark on the Sufi path.

Not everyone has the physical and spiritual constitution to embark on a Sufi experience, which is why 99 percent of people fail to reach the stage of self-actualization. Many people are denied the divine love that is necessary for the fulfillment of one’s wishes. Worldly love is a shadow of divine love, and it is love that is the core organizing principle of Sufism. Moreover, “to love is to obey,” and thus God is obliged to obey the one he loves, according to Sufi thought. The physical and spiritual exercises of the Sufi is emblematic of the one who is in a lover’s state of longing for the beloved. Furthermore, these physical and spiritual exercises develop a sense of empathy for the downtrodden and the poor.

No one knows the exact timeframe for which one can attain “Ma’rifa,” nor are there exact heuristics which render a perfect outcome. Each case is unique. For example, the Sufi scholar Al-Ghazali narrated a saying of the Prophet Muhammad which states that abstention from the consumption of meat for forty days leads to Ma’rifa. It all depends on the individual and their particular circumstances. Nevertheless, along the path to Ma’rifa and thus self-actualization, one experiences bouts of ecstasy and joy which in turn contribute to the physical and spiritual development of an individual. There are both ups and downs along the path towards Ma’rifa and self-actualization. Some thinkers, both past and present, consider love to be a disease. But without these bouts of ecstasy and joy and without the love that emanates from the physical and spiritual exercises of the Sufi, the heart and soul dies and the body will become corrupted and degenerative.

At the core of the Sufi experience is a paradox, which is that longing and separation from the beloved brings about the divine union between knowledge and self. In essence, the paradox brings about delayed gratification, which is a more fulfilling, intense, and meaningful form of gratification than the instant gratification that is common in today’s world. At some point, intellectualization and philosophy has to be abandoned for a phenomenological and spiritual regimen. As Wittgenstein said, once you receive the answer to your questions, end your philosophical pursuits. The founder of the Sufi school of thought, Imam Al-Ghazali, was a legal jurist and scholar who abandoned his teaching profession for a more phenomenological and spiritual understanding of Islam. Love is the truth that is sought after through intellectual and philosophical means, but can only be attained in a phenomenological and spiritual sense. Moreover, the knowledge needed to acquire “Ma’rifa,” according to Ibn Arabi, has to be given to an individual by the prophets and saints of the past. The knowledge necessary for self-actualization and thus Ma’rifa is not necessarily of an empirical nature found in books. Furthermore, every journey towards Ma’rifa and self-actualization begins with repentance and an abandonment of old ways, and the one who repents, according to Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, is the one who is protected from all the evils that once afflicted the individual and is then granted all that they wish for.

Through the contemplation that accompanies the Jungian “individuation process” and the Sufi withdrawal from society, the will of the Sufi and the will of God become one and the same. This can only be a good thing. Thus, the life of a Sufi becomes an aesthetic one, where beauty, balance, proportionality, and movement towards divine love become the hallmark characteristics of a Sufi’s life. Compassion and love are chosen over cruelty and hate. Often it has been said that “cruelty is the point” given that Malthusian economics and Social Darwinism are the economic and social models that shape today’s world. In this type of world, compassion is often used as a tool for deceit. Politicians almost always use compassion as a means of deceit for either popular support or votes. It is now proven through the work of behavioral scientists like Daniel Kahneman and others that the human mind is divided into two parts. For one, there is the “reptilian” mind that is based on an impulse towards conflict, fear, money, and infantile sexuality. Second, there is the reflective mind that draws people towards compassion and love. The question is one of which part of the mind we choose to help evolve and nurture, and ultimately the point of evolution and reform is to create a more compassionate and loving world. Moreover, the creation of a more compassionate and loving world is the goal of all the world’s major religions. As Karen Armstrong wrote:

“The religious systems have all discovered that it is indeed possible to nourish the shoots of compassion…and learn to withstand the me-first mechanisms of the old reptilian brain.”

In sum, the Sufi path facilitates the journey towards the fulfillment of an individual’s desires. While most people will deny the veracity of such a physical and spiritual undertaking, there will always be a very small group of individuals who adhere to the path and in turn fulfill all their wishes and utilize their full potential towards bringing about much needed economic and social progress in the world.

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