What is Sufism?  |  Sufism Defined  |  Answers

Listed below are a set of key questions and answers that may offer newcomers some insight into the method and practice of Sufism. It is hoped that these short introductory Answers will steer the Seeker on a journey to acquire more knowledge, and that ultimately such people will become seekers on the path of Truth.

  1. What is the Role of Asceticism and Abstinence in Sufism?

    It is clear, that Sufism is not based upon ascetic practices such as abstinence from food. In our school, the traveler on God's Way is only instructed to abstain from food when he is sick or entangled in excessive desire or fear. In this case, the master or spiritual guide permits one to refrain from eating for a brief period of time, and instead directs one to concentrate on spiritual practices. In this way, the excess is transmuted and the seeker's inner being becomes harmonious. Then, the dervish will be enabled to continue on the dangerous ascent to the Infinite.

    Some have thought that by fasting the strength necessary for purification is attained. On the contrary, in Sufism abstinence alone is not enough to purify the self. It is true that asceticism and abstinence give one a certain spiritual state, and in this state one's perception may be clarified. But if the self is likened to a dragon that by fasting becomes powerless, it is certain that when the fast is broken and enough food is eaten, the dragon will revive, and stronger than ever will go about attempting to fulfill its desires.

    In Sufism, it is by the tariqat (spiritual path) that the self is gradually purified and transformed into Divine Attributes, until there is nothing left of one's commanding self. Then all that remains is the Perfect, Divine Self. In such extensive and precise work, asceticism and abstinence are virtually worthless.

  2. What is the role of music in Sufism?

    The musical and ecstatic aspect of Sufism is called sama. The sufis, while being spiritually enraptured, give all the attention of their hearts to the Beloved. Often with special and rhythmical music, they engage themselves in the selfless remembrance of God. In this state, the sufi is a drunken lover who becomes unaware of everything but God. With all their faculties the sufis are attentive to the Beloved, and have totally given up and forgotten themselves.

    Not all disciples engage in sama. It is only given as a practice to some by their spiritual guide, who determines whether it is appropriate for them or not. Sama can be likened to a medicine; it is sometimes prescribed and sometimes prohibited.

  3. What are the stages of purification on the path?

    The stages of purification are:
    1. self becoming emptied
    2. self becoming illuminated
    3. self becoming adorned
    4. self having passed away (fana)

    These stages occur in the course of the selfless remembrance of God (dhikr). The first stage, becoming emptied, entails letting go of negative qualities, the desires which originate from the self. The second stage of becoming illuminated involves polishing the heart and soul of the tarnish of belief in and attachment to the self. In the third stage, one's inner being becomes adorned by Divine Attributes. Ultimately, the being of the disciple becomes completely filled by the Attributes of the Truth, to the extent that there is no sign of his own limited existence. This fourth stage is called "self-having passed-away" (fana).

  4. Do sufis Work in Society?

    sufis spend all of their energy in the way of the Beloved. They know that using their energy in any other way is a waste. For this reason, the sufis’ work is creative and serves society. In addition, sufis at work are thankful for whatever God provides. They carry out their responsibilities effectively and sincerely, wit the highest possible efficiency, because they seek God’s satisfaction and not their own.

    In view of this, most sufi masters have engaged in a life occupation. On the sufi path, those how do not work and exist as parasites, living off society, cannot be true worshippers of God. As Muhammad, the Prophet of God, has said:

    Whoever does not have work
         does not have religion.

    Thus, the person without work is not a sufi.

  5. What is the role of prayer in Sufism?

    People pray in order to draw God’s compassion and grace upon themselves. In their prayers, they beg God to bestow His benevolence upon them and not His wrath. But the sufi is one who is in love with the Beloved. Whether the Beloved is clothed in the garb of benevolence or wrath makes no difference. How, then, can the sufi pray for anything, when all he or she sees is the Beloved and not the outer garment?

    One who prays to God for something prays from a ‘self’. Such beseeching becomes a manifestation of an individual consciousness before Absolute Being. However, the enraptured lover cannot at all be conscious of his or her own existence before the Absolute, as that would be infidelity to the Beloved. Bayazid has said:

    From the time of initiation into love,
    I have been ashamed to ask anyting from
         God, but God himself.

    Even to my daily prayers, required by religion,
    I always added, “Oh God, you know
         what Bayazid wants”!

    In the words of Rumi:

    I know a group of saints;
         ‘their’ mouths are shut to prayer.

    Since the sufis want only what God wants, and have no ‘self’ from which to pray, how can they pray for anything? Indeed, how can ‘they’ pray at all?

    Thus, when the sufi prays, ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not praying and consequently cannot pray for anything.

  6. Must sufis live without wealth?

    Some people believe that a sufi must be without wealth. Actually, this is an incorrect view. To willfully insist upon living in poverty is itself an attachment. The sufi, though, is free from all attachment. The essential point here is that the sufis heart should have no attachment to wealth or worldly possessions. If a sufi is rich one day, then poor the next, he or she remains unaffected by either condition.

    The story is told of a darvish who went to visit an honorable and wealthy shaikh. Seeing the shaikh’s affluence, the darvish thought, “How can Sufism and such prosperity go hand-in-hand?” After staying a few days with the shaikh, the darvish decided to leave. The shaikh said, “Let me accompany you on your journey.”

    After they had gone a short distance the darvish suddenly noticed that he had forgotten his kashkul. So he asked the shaikh for permission to return and get it. The shaikh replied, “I departed from all my possessions, but you can’t leave behind even your begging bowl. Therefore, we must part company here.”

    Thus, the sufi is not attached to either wealth or poverty.

  7. Do sufis dance as part of their practice?

    The enrapturing of the sufis by God, or rather the ‘pull’ of God, keeps the sufi continually in spiritual inner dance and movement. Whenever a wave of such Divine rapture strikes the heart of the sufi, it creates turbulence in his or her inner being. This, in turn, causes the body to move. Upon seeing such movement, non-sufis have often supposed that the sufi is dancing. In reality, however, it is the waves of the Ocean of the Truth that are tossing and turning the anchorless vessel that is the heart of the sufi.

    Some superficial people have supposed that by dancing one can become Divinely enraptured and reach God. While it is true that all dancing can undoubtedly give one a feeling of intoxication, this kind of dancing is willful. However, sufis in love have no will of their own, and therefore dance involuntarily. Their feet dance upon both worlds, and their hands let go of al the beauty of paradise. They have given up all thought of existence.

    Thus, the sufi comes to ‘dance’ only when taken from himself or herself.

  8. Do sufis believe in Paradise?

    The sufi dwells in the paradise of being One with the Beloved in the here and now, not looking to the promised paradise of the hereafter:

    As I am in paradise now,
         why should I care about the ascetic’s promise
    of paradise tomorrow?

    For the sufi, one who does not find the Truth in this world will not reach it in the next. As it is written in the Koran, “Whoever is blind in this world will be blind in the next, and go yet further astray.”

    Whoever does not see the face
         of the Beloved today
    is not likely to see it tomorrow.

    Thus, the sufi is in paradise in this world.

  9. Is it Necessary to Have a Master?

    The master (murad) is a person who guides travelers on the path of annihilation in God (fana fi’llah) and leads them towards subsistence in God (baqa bi’llah).

    The master is incomparably exalted. He or she is the object of God’s constant attention, and his or her being is completely comprised of Divine Attributes. The master knows the truth of Reality and has polished the tarnish of multiplicity from the mirror of his or her heart. He or she has journeyed to the end of the way of spiritual poverty and abandonment of self. He or she is the guide of the spiritual path and the sun of the Truth.

    I am a disciple of the master of the hold fire.
         O preachers; do not be displeased with me.
    For the master has fulfilled in this world
         What you have but promised in the next.

    - Hafiz

    The attention of the master is an elixir that transmutes the copper hearts of travelers to gold and delivers them from the brink of disaster. He or she burns away the lover’s existence and illuminates him or her by the light of the Beloved.

    By a glance we transform dust into gold,
         and by a flash from the corner of one eye,
              we cure a hundred pains.

    - Shah Ni’matullah

    The masters of the path have declared the following about the necessity of having a master, “One who has no spiritual master has no religion.”

    If you do not have a lock
          of the Beloved’s tresses in your hand,
    You are less than a Zoroastrian slave,
         as you do not even have his belt of faith.

  10. Do sufis believe in Freewill or Determinism?

    At the beginning of the Path, according to sufis, free will (tafwid) is the predominating factor since the disciple is still entangled in the conflicts of the self. At this point, the disciple is largely influenced by the dictates of the self’s desires which overwhelm the individual will. In accordance with the Koranic verse “Man has naught but what he strives for” (53:39), one should apply one’s own will in order to become emptied of the self’s compulsions and to prepare oneself to fully manifest the divine Attributes. This process can take place only through individual effort combined with Divine Attraction.

    At the end of the disciples’ traveling, with the ‘passing away of individual action’ (fana-yi af’al) and the illumination of Divine Attributes in the inner being, the disciple sees that everything is determined (jabr). Here, there is no more interposition of ‘I’ or ‘we’; all that the sufi does or wills is that which God does or wills.

  11. Do I have to convert to Islam to be a sufi?

    Nimatullahi sufis come from all religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds. The true meaning of Islam is ‘Surrender’, and when an initiate takes their vows – this is the promise that they are asked to give: to surrender themselves on the path to God by remembering Him and serving others. This is the true essence of all religion and it is this promise that a sufi will be asked to make and none other.

    'Are there Men of god to be found in mosques?" Abu Sa'id ibn Abi l-Khayr was asked. "Yes, " he replied, "but they can also be found in taverns (kharabat).

    - Asrar al-tawhid

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