Sufism and Tasawwuf
Lessons from the Dr. Mohammed Faghfoory
Why you should listen?
This interview with Dr. Mohammed Faghfoory revolves around Sufism and Tasawwuf, primarily based on the readings and teachings of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. He starts off by differentiating Rumi from his writings and explains how Rumi is commonly known for his pleasant poetry and literature instead of who he truly is. Nowadays understanding Rumi out of the context of his Islamic-Academic background and trying to understand him as a “new-age thinker” would be considered not only a disservice to him but a false reading of his teachings holistically.
Ultimately Rumi’s goal is to help people understand that the purpose of this life is to worship God. Rumi’s teachings are based on two principles, knowledge and love, which are the two things that compose the elements of faith. Rumi breaks down religion and faith into two different types. The one we are born into as a child, which he describes as imitation, and the one that we learn and experience through knowledge and practice.
Although Rumi lived during some of the most difficult times in Islamic history he managed to insist on the importance of interfaith dialogue even during those times. He spoke of understanding, communication, and respect of each other’s differences. Despite of our external differences, we can unite through the heart and work from there. In order to put this into fruition we must be able to overcome common obstacles such as prejudices.
Tasawwuf or Sufism
Tasawwuf, also known as Sufism, refers to the path that Sufis follow to reach God, the Truth. This term—Tasawwuf, generally expresses the theoretical or philosophical aspect of the search for Truth. And those who practice Sufism are often referred to as “Dervish” or “Sufi”.
Tasawwuf has numerous definitions. According to some, Tasawwuf is God, The Almighty, grounding one’s ego and self-centeredness and providing one’s spiritual restoration with the light of His Essence. In other words, it may be considered as God’s transformation of one’s worldly desires and will into the will and desire towards Himself. Another approach to Tasawwuf can be the continuous venture of eliminating all types of bad maxims and evil conduct and working towards acquiring virtues.
Junayd al-Baghdadi, a renowned Sufi, defines Tasawwuf as a way of recollecting ‘self-annihilation in God’ and ‘permanence or subsistence with God.’ Shibli’s definition is summarized as a state of being together with God constantly or in His ever-presence while having no worldly or even other-worldly gains or benefits in mind. On the other hand, Abu Muhammad Jarir describes it as a state of resisting the temptations of the carnal self and bad moral qualities and acquiring laudable moral qualities.
There are some who describe Tasawwuf as the ability to look past the outward reality of things and events and interpret all happenings in the world with proximity to God Almighty. This may cause one to view all of The Almighty’s occurrences as a means that leads to Him and His “viewing”. This is a spiritual “seeing” above the physical realm. The one who grasps this spiritual high often strives to live in a continuous effort of trying to attain this state of profound spirituality and attempts to constantly carry on the cognizance of being continually overseen by Him.
We may sum up all the accounts of Tasawwuf iterated above as a means of being freed from all vices and weaknesses that pertain to human nature, while striving for angelic qualities in pursuit of pleasing God by living with the knowledge and love of the Creator; thus, benefitting from the spiritual satisfaction that comes with it.
Establishing a path or a travel (Seyr u Suluk) in Tasawwuf is contingent on having a firm base and core understanding of the rules of Shari’a and its meanings. One who wishes to observe and take this path must be cautious of not differentiating the Shari’a rules while exploring different dimensions of religion. Upon bearing these steps in mind, one may travel towards the goal in utmost humility and submission.
Tasawwuf is a path which leads to the knowledge of God; and this demands solemnity. Thus, there is no room in it for negligent or frivolous manners. Like a honeybee flying from hives to flowers and back from flowers to hives, this path requires a continuous strive in the pursuit of the knowledge of God. One should purify one’s heart from all attachments other than seeking God, and refrain from all inclinations, desires, and appetites of one’s carnal self. One should lead his/her life at a spiritual level with a readiness to receive divine blessings and inspirations and be in strict observance of the prophetic example. Sincerely admitting attachment and adherence to God as the greatest merit and honor, one should renounce one’s own desires for the sake of the obligations of God, the Truth.
Following the preliminary definitions [above], we shall attempt to discuss the aim, benefit, and principles of Tasawwuf:
Tasawwuf requires a strict adherence to religious obligations, austerity in life-style, and the renunciation of carnal appetites.
Aim of Tasawwuf
By purifying one’s heart and directing one’s senses and faculties in the way of God, Tasawwuf aims to live life at a spiritual degree. Tasawwuf also enables one to deepen his consciousness of being a servant of God by performing constant acts of worship. It enables one to renounce the world that pertains to human desires and fancies, and awakens him to the hereafter and the faces of this world that reminds one of the Divine, Beautiful Names.
Benefit of Tasawwuf
Rather than accepting religion and faith superficially, traditionally, or culturally, one develops the angelic dimension of one’s existence and acquires a strong, heart-felt, and experienced conviction of the truths and articles of faith and belief— and this is the benefit of Tasawwuf.
Principles of Tasawwuf
- Reaching substantial and true belief in Divine Oneness and living in accordance with its demands.
- In addition to heeding the Divine Speech (the Qur’an), discerning the physical and metaphysical commands and wills of the Divine Power (the laws of creation and life which are the subject matter of the sciences) and obeying them.
- Overflowing with Divine love and getting on well with all other beings in the consciousness (originating from Divine love) that the universe is a cradle of brotherhood.
- Acting with a spirit of altruism and therefore giving preference or precedence to the well-being and happiness of others.
- Acting in accordance with the demands of the Divine Will—not with the demands of our own will—and trying to lead our lives at the ‘peaks’ of self-annihilation in God and subsistence with Him.
- Being open to love, spiritual yearning, delight, and ecstasy.
- Visiting places and being in the company of people that will encourage avoidance of sin and to strive in the way of God.
- Being content with lawful and licit pleasures and being determined not to take even a single step towards the unlawful or sinful.
- Continuous struggling against worldly ambitions and the illusions that may lead us to suppose this world as eternal.
- Always being aware, even in the path of serving religion and working towards the guidance of people to the way of the Truth; salvation is only possible through certainty and conviction (of the truth of religious principles of belief and conduct) and sincerity and purity of intention and aiming only to please God.
- Acquiring knowledge, an understanding of the religious and cognitive sciences, the paths leading to knowledge and love of God, and following the guidance of an exemplary spiritual master may be added to these principles. This is also of considerable significance in the way of the great Imam Naqshbandiya.
- It may be useful to discuss Tasawwuf in the light of the following basic concepts which are the subject-matter of books written on good morals, manners, and asceticism in the pursuit of finding the “Muhammadan Truth” in one’s heart.
History of Sufism
Sufism has been a prominent movement within Islam throughout most of its history. It grew out of an early ascetic movement within Islam, which sought to counteract the worldliness that came with the rapid expansion of the Muslim community.
The earliest form of Sufism arose under the Umayyad Dynasty (661-749) less than a century after the founding of Islam. Mystics of this period meditated on the Doomsday passages in the Quran, thereby earning such nicknames as "those who always weep."
These early Sufis led a life of strict obedience to Islamic scripture and tradition and were known for their night prayers. Many of them concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul— absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism.
Another century or so later, a new emphasis on love changed asceticism into mysticism. This development is attributed to Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah (d. 801), a woman from Basra who formulated the Sufi ideal of a pure love of God that was disinterested, without hope for paradise or fear of hell.
Other important developments soon followed, including strict self-control, psychological insight, "interior knowledge," annihilation of the self, mystical insights about the nature of man, and the Prophet, hymns and poetry. This period, from about 800-1100 AD is referred to as classical Sufism or classical mysticism.
The next important stage in Sufi history was the development of fraternal orders, in which disciples followed the teachings of a leader-founder. The 13th century is considered the golden age of Sufism, in which some of the greatest mystical poetry was composed. Important figures from this period include Ibn al'Arabi of Spain, Ibn al-Farid of Egypt, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi of Persia, and Najmuddin Kubra of Central Asia. By this time, Sufism had permeated the whole of the Islamic world and played a large role in the shaping of Islamic society.
- State the aim, benefit, and the principles of Tasawwuf.
- When did the earliest form of Sufism emerge?
- What was the central concept of the early Sufis?
- Which period was the named the "golden age" of Sufism’?
- Which period was referred to as "classical Sufism or classical mysticism”?
 Mohammad H. Faghfoory is professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University and the Director of the MA Program in Islamic Studies.