One dark winter’s night, I was in bed, sitting perfectly erect, completely oblivious to my surroundings, my eyes fixated on the pages of the book I was reading – a book that was to change my life.
The book was Islam And The Destiny of Man, by Gai Eaton, an English writer and revert to Islam. I had heard great things about the book and that it was a stimulating read for the intellectual. I wasn’t disappointed. The book itself is a lucid, magnificently written masterpiece and an exposition of Islam that is quite unparalleled by anything else in the English language. However, there were ten pages within the book that shook the depths of my being.
For some time I had, to varying degrees, been suffering from inner turmoil: having been brought up a Muslim, I was starting to question my faith. What if Islam isn’t the truth? Why should I believe in all these pre-modern teachings, many of which seem to go against reason? What sort of God, seemingly carefree, throws people into the fires of Hell? And why should I believe in an anthropomorphised, transcendent God that resides in the heavens?
But within less than 15 minutes, all those questions, doubts and fears had been allayed, vanishing into non-existence. Those ten pages from the late Gai Eaton’s book, had resonated with me to such an extent that an eery stillness suffused my core. I sat up on the edge of my bed, rubbing my face and passing my fingers through my hair, while trying to comprehend what I had just read.
I thought to myself: All this time, there was something more – so much more – to Islam and nobody had told me?
For years I had just been scratching the surface of Islam, unable to plunge into its vast oceans. But, thankfully, I had discovered the profundity of Islam, its depth and indeed its essence.
Those ten pages were about Islamic mysticism, also known as Sufism. Some people define Sufism as “tasting”, or “experiencing”, in Arabic, “dhawq” or as “unveiling”, in Arabic, “Khasf“. For the first time in my life I had tasted, experienced or unveiled something True, Sufism had spoken to me in a way that nothing or no-one had ever done before.
Sufism, however, is not something abstract, it’s not about using one’s mental faculties to arrive at the truth, it’s about annihilating the self and discovering the Self, so that one can experience the divine with one’s heart. What I had discovered is that these sorts of teachings posed a threat to Islamic orthodoxy, threatening to bring down the Islamic Establishment – so for centuries, had been suppressed.
To be clear: I do not identify myself as a Sufi. Neither do I believe in promulgating Sufism’s esoteric teachings to the masses.
Many even believe that identifying oneself as a Sufi is a little arrogant, rather people should say they are an aspirant-Sufi. The term Sufism is also a little divisive: it leads people to think that Sufism is something other than Islam.
According to Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, no major scholar in Islamic history has ever denied that Tasuwwuf is a science of Islam. Even Abd-al Wahab, the founder of the modern day Wahhabi movement didn’t deny Tasuwwuf, neither did Ibn Taymiyyah, who wrote extensively on the science.
Essentially, there are two things that attract me to Sufism: One, its emphasis on God’s immanence in the cosmos and closeness to us, and, two, the esoteric, inner meaning of Islam’s opus magnum, the Quran, and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
According to the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran has several layers of meanings. The Prophet also spoke to people in different ways: to the bedouins, he would use simple language and explain Islam’s exoteric nature. To his companions, who were more receptive to Islam’s more inner teachings, he would speak on a more intellectual level, explaining Islam’s esoteric nature.
According to one of most famous Islamic traditions, the hadith of Gabriel, the Prophet described three levels of Islam, the highest being Ihsan, spiritual excellence or doing what is beautiful. Ihsan was described as the Prophet as “that you should worship God as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, nonetheless He sees you”.
The definition says “if you do not see Him”. But what if you do see Him and how does one see God? According to the Sufis, God can indeed be seen in this world, not through our physical eyes but through the eye of our heart. To be clear: God can only be seen to the extent that He chooses to show Himself and certainly cannot be seen as He appears to Himself. The idea within Sufism is that through self-annihilation, there is a thinning of the existential veil between the Divine Reality and human creatures.
The Sufis, generally speaking, uncompromisingly follow the way of the Quran and the Prophet, although many have deviated. They believe the esoteric and the exoteric should never contradict. But they also believe that it is possible to be so sincerely devoted in their imitation of the Prophet that God can teach them directly, without the intermediary of rational learning. They quote the Quranic verse: “Be wary of God, and God will teach you” (2:282).
Imam al-Ghazzali, the greatest medieval Islamic theologian, was the first Muslim scholar to successfully synthesise Islam with Sufism. Known as “hujjat-ul-Islam“, the proof of Islam, he searched for the truth in Islam’s many dimensions and in various philosophies. He found the truth he was looking for in Sufism. He said: “But behind those who believe comes a crowd of ignorant people who deny the reality of Sufism…” He also said: “I learnt from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God…”
Quranic verses of immanence
“When My servant asks thee about Me, I am indeed close [to them],” Quran 2:186
“…We are nearer to him [human beings] than his jugular vein,” Quran 50:16
“Die before you die”, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said.
Another saying attributed to Muhammad, peace be upon, is: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”
According to a Hadith Qudsi, a saying of the Prophet which is God speaking Himself: “My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks.”
The pervasive rhetoric of today’s Salafis is that Sufism is a “deviant sect” practised by “deviant Muslims”. This is something I had believed, too.
The reason I share this story is because I believe Sufism, when practised appropriately, is the perfect antidote to much of the Islamic extremism around the world. Sufism is about love and beauty. It is also the antidote to the rising number of intellectuals who are rejecting religion.
God is vast, He encompasses all things and in His divine Knowledge gave us a religion that appeals to all people: unintelligent people and intelligent people, those with harsh a nature and those with a gentle nature.
Religion needs to be multi-dimensional and flexible to adapt to different people and cultures. Gai Eaton wrote in his book Remembering God: “Rigidity and death go together, and an inflexible system is bound, sooner or later, to be shattered by circumstances.”
In our post-God era, where many have convinced themselves that there is no Divine Reality, the midset that predominates western though is that forms and rituals are irrelevant, it is the spirit that counts. A popular refrain we often hear is “what we have in our heart is all that matters”. This is true – and what is in our hearts is primary – but this attitude can also lead to a type of subjective extremism. The heart can become corrupted and can therefore suffuse our being with all sorts of vices.
Unfortunately, too many religious people have emphasised the Law, the outward form – as opposed to placing equal merit on the spirit of the letter and the Law.
The sole emphasis on the outward forms of religion and many of its pre-modern customs and teachings are hard to digest. Some of these pre-modern ideas have led people to think of religion as the antipode of science and reason and, as a result, is producing countless atheists. Fortunately for me, my search for the Truth lead me to the Truth. Indeed, if one is searching for the Truth it will manifest itself to you one way or another.
‘I perceived my Lord with the eye of my heart, I asked: Who art thou? He replied: Thou.” Mansur Al-Hallaj