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What is Sufism?

A reading Response to Professor Rory Dickson's Paper

Just as the answer to the quintessential question about ‘culture’ is that “There is not such a thing as pure culture,”[1] one can get the same gist when Professor William Rory Dickson ponders what Sufism is. His writing style, filled with passion for the subject he presents, uses an accessible language that guides readers, scholars of the field of Islamic studies, and novices alike, toward five key themes that illustrate the subject of “Sufism as the inner teachings of Islam.”[2] This brief paper will offer a succinct synopsis of those five areas that support the argumentative view of Professor Dickson aiming to answer the challenging question: What is Sufism? Following the highlights of this work, I will reflect on Dickson’s particular description of the unified concept of dhikr and its central role within the Sufi’s practices, especially when citing Sufism’s most celebrated master and metaphysician, Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi. Additionally, I will take a look at the importance of the spiritual master as a guide to comprehend the inexplicable that escapes our self-awareness.

The first part highlights the origin and evolution of Sufism comprising two subsections, how the definition of Sufism emerges, and the historical development associated with it. Dickson’s overall argument starts by describing “Sufism [as] simply the inner (or esoteric) teaching of Islam”[3] where the Sufis find this inward spiritual experience as the Prophet “Muhammed’s way,”[4] or Sunnah. In other words, the trace of early practices goes as far as the time of the Prophet and the teachings of the Qur’an, where a large range of living spiritual practices were expressed in the recitations themselves. Moreso, later Sufis spoke of “the Sufism of the Christians and the Jews”[5] by highlighting practices from previous great prophets such as Moses and Jesus. Historically speaking, the word Sufi or Sufism as such did not evolve from dawn to sunset. Although a great deal of Muslims agree that “the spiritual energy field that developed around Muhammad infused the life of his companions,” the Prophet’s close companions were the key transmitters of Muhammad’s influence; one of them was his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who became one the community’s most “important spiritual guide.”[6] ‘Ali was associated with a group that cherished minimalist life, constant meditation, and continue prayer in an area called suffa, which developed into ‘people of suffa;’ making another link to the later known Sufi. The evolution of Sufism reached mainstream society when it enjoyed the “patronage of Muslim sultans” and even the “endorsements from orthodox theologians.”[7] Dickson brings fundamental names such as one the most famous theologians of this period, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who defined Sufism as “simply Islam’s inner science parallel to its outward sciences such as law and spiritual commentary,”[8] or as Dickson summarizes from Al-Ghazali: “the science of unveiling.”[9]

As it is always the case, when power and politics intertwine, corruption leaks and Sufis ‘often’ criticized the elites that rule; some of said elites were radical ones that realized that the “the inward experience of God was priority over the outward acts of ritual obedience”[10] such as understanding of Islamic spiritual ideals were still within the Islamic paradigm. However, reformers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries observe that traditional values in Islam were fading away by reacting against Sufism, seeing it as “a corruption of Islam’s original purity.”[11] In other words, the concept of Sufism, historically speaking, was always a part of Islam’s inward-outward spiritual rituals, and also fostered ethical norms within Islam to supplement and to boost the devotee’s spiritual “experience and levels of devotion by realizing the truth or reality.”[12]

The second subject of the paper Dickson offers, Sufism from the Inside Out, features some classical Sufi definitions of Sufism - from Abu-Said ibn Abi-Khayr and Abu Muhammad al-Jariri, to al-Hujwiri, Rumi and Jami. However, and as a personal note, I found the best and synthesized definition of Sufism from Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, Sufism’s most celebrated master and metaphysician. He emphasizes Sufi practices as “meant to allow practitioners to directly verify spiritual truth for themselves (taste, unveiling, realization or direct witnessing).”[13] In other words, the focus remains on the importance of Sufism as a direct experience where perspective is unique to each human being embracing the practice. Moreso, definitions do not properly fit due to this experiential practice; Dickson uses a clear analogy that cleverly synthesizes the concept: “is like trying to explain what an orange tastes like to someone who has never tasted a citrus fruit.”[14] We must agree that the use of analogies, aphorisms, and tales remain crucial to grasp the concept of Sufism. Besides, stories not only help to clarify concepts hard to define but also help “illustrate the limitations of our ability to comprehend”[15] what can only be understood through empirical perspectives or “one’s idiosyncratic human form.”[16] The mysterious and the inexplicable experience or, if I may, the reality behind the actions appear incomprehensible at first. Under a closer look, as this ‘tasting’ practise can only be available through experience, the experience is only a part of a big cosmos: “without the actual spiritual experience of the vastness of the soul, no amount of explanation will do.”[17]

The mysticism of Qur’anic recitations or the inexplicable experience of spiritual transformation, claim the Sufis, is all linked to ‘love,’ the “origin of the entire cosmos and all the life is due to love.”[18] Dickson addresses these themes in sections three and five by underlining Sufism and its relation to Islam as well, as by stressing how important the subject of ‘love’ is as a word that “can sum up Islamic spirituality.”[19] Once again, it is crucial to underline that Sufi practices all trace back to the Prophet Muhammad and his teachings of the Qur’an; under this note, Professor Dickson summarizes it as “something like the spiritual heart of Islam.”[20] Furthermore, the vast majority of Sufis were and are devout Muslims, says Dickson.

If we return to the historical developments of Sufism, Dickson stresses, the historical emergence of the Qur’an raises within “a cultural matrix of romantic poetry.”[21] A worthy note aside - this does not imply that the Prophet Mohammad was a poet, but the ambience around him and Mecca was poetic, “the uncontested [and] foremost cultural artifact of the ancient Meccans.”[22] The mystical depths of the Qur’an is well described by Ibn al-‘Arabi, who shares that all of his many works are inspired from the Holy Book where “one can get lost in it and never found again.”[23] Giving the specifics professor Dickson offers on Sufism and its role within Islam, we can conclude that its practice and essence fulfills the understanding of ‘reality’ for the individual’s spiritual transformation that transcends the forms of its expression. As Dickson simply puts it, “different people have different needs, and one form of Sufism may be appropriate for some and totally inappropriate for others,”[24] including cultural differences and lifestyle as well.


If there is one concept from Professor Dickson’s article that I found intriguing, it is the special description of the Remembrance of God (dhikr Allah) and its central role within the Sufi’s practices. Moreso, I find the depiction of dhikr given by Ibn al-‘Arabi as a solid foundation that holds all of the above. In Book of the Quintessence, cites Dickson, Al-‘Arabi describes that “the heart is not normally unified, but rather scattered in its attention”[25] and ‘remembrance,’ dhikr unifies the heart. Said differently, what we perceive as a collage of unordered feelings in ourselves, a sense of confusion, or a disconnection between our body and mental awareness, as well as inexplicable self-behaviour - all these factors can be unified (or put in order) through dhikr. The doing becomes unified “by the feeling of authenticity, integrity, and even bliss.”[26] What’s more, the remembrance of God that comes as a result of Qur’anic recitations and performing the daily salat, or prayers, which al-‘Arabi perceives as fundamental to the Sufi path, dhikr holds all together. Al-‘Arabi goes further by stressing that “a Sufi aspirant becomes one when sees oneness all around like a scattered mirror restored into a single piece reflecting a single image.”[27]

When Dickson highlights that for Sufis, “the purpose of human life is to dissolve the egoistic self,” one cannot help the Buddhist view of the role of ‘desire’ that juxtaposes this Sufi assessment. In Buddhism, the idea of suffering in life remains in the individual desire to attain something, material or other, that creates an obsession to possession and then, satisfaction. The key is to remove that desire to avoid suffering. However, can we achieve either without guidance? In one word: No.

Dickson offers a subsection entitled “The Role of the Spiritual Master” that highlights the importance of guidance throughout the process of removing one’s own ego. They say that the first step toward resolving a problem is to admit that there is one. So, recognizing one’s own ego and self-limitations is central, guides must be those “who have themselves transcended the self’s limitation and [of course] must be qualified spiritual master, usually with a lineage traceable back to the Prophet Muhammad.”[28] The role of spiritual guidance is crucial, as this is also why Sufis trust that a guide is so important on the spiritual path- as Rumi puts it, “without the guidance of a master, a two-day journey can take two hundred years.”[29] This master-disciple reciprocating relationship is clearly exemplified by Dickson when he recaps the story about Moses and his encounter with a guide, the Green Man or al-khadir, when events test Moses’ understanding and patience. Shortly put, actions or events that appear incomprehensible do have a larger purpose not immediately intelligible. For Ibn al-‘Arabi much of this world “seems inexplicable but when understood from a closer view, its wisdom and even perfection is apparent.”[30] I find this narrative strong enough to answer the teleological question: Why do bad things happen to good people? The reason, purpose, or its goal may remain outside our conscious “fixated on surface appearances” as Dickson underlines.



Bibliography


William Rory Dickson, What Is Sufism? n.d., pp. 1-29.


[1] Paraphrasing Professor Dickson’s comment during one of his numerous lectures. [2] William Rory Dickson, What Is Sufism? n.d., 1. [3] Ibid. [4] Sunna is the example taken from the Prophet Muhammad, which are reported in the hadith, that establishes normative precedent for Muslims. This is the second source of Islam after, of course, the Qur’an. Practices by the Prophet are considered an example to follow as a reference of the perfect human being. Better put by Dr. Dickson, “Muslims consider the Prophet Muhammad as an archetype and model of human completion, fully integrating spirituality with all aspects of life,” p. 3. [5] Dickson, 1. [6] Professor Dickson makes clear distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims on the spiritual, political, and inheritance impact post-Muhammad’s demise. [7] Dickson, 6. [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid., footnote. [10] Ibid., 8. [11] Wait, did not we observe this in history? Was not called “Make America Great Again”? Religion, as in politics, must not be taken as something entirely stable. [12] Ibid., 13. [13] Ibid., 10-11. [14] Ibid., 11. [15] Ibid., 12. [16] Ibid., 11. [17] Ibid., 13. [18] Ibid., 26 [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid. [21] Ibid., 27. [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid., 16. [24] Ibid., 15. [25] Ibid., 20. [26] Ibid. [27] Ibid., 21. [28] Ibid. [29] Ibid., 14. [30] Ibid., 24.

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