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Bachelor of Sufism

BACHELOR OF SUFISM : (4 credits) >>

Universal Life Church Bachelor of Sufism Online Seminary Course.

At the ULC Seminary, we study all areas of spirituality and religion.  This is a course on Comparative Religion.


This is a sample of the third lesson out of twenty that explores Sufism. To order this course, go to:



Sufism - Islamic Mysticism

The Relationship Between Sufism and Islam

The lesson this week will focus on the relationship between Sufism and Islam.  It seems that all mystical traditions exist within some sort of outer structure.  In most cases this is some sort of organized religion.  It is difficult to imagine a mysticism that could exist without this external form.  This is apparent historically from the lives of famous mystics such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart who experienced their mysticism within the definitions of Christianity and in a European culture.  Similarly, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and even tribal religionists have mystical experiences within the context of the religious and cultural beliefs in which they live.  This outer form includes moral and ethical teachings as well as mythology and ritual.


           The Sufi Shaykh Ragip Robert Frager Al-Jerrahi stated this explicitly in relation to Sufism.  He said, “The foundation for all mysticism includes the outer forms of religious practice, as well as a life based on moral and ethical principles” (Fadiman and Frager, p. 2).  Of course for Sufism this outer form is the religion of Islam.  Again, Frager drives this point home, “The adoption of the moral and ethical teachings of Islam created a climate in which Sufism could develop and flourish.  Sufism is not different from the mysticism at the heart of all religions.” (Ibid, p. 2)           


Universal Life ChurchThis relationship between the outer form of religion and the mystical form of religion is reflected in terminology.  The Arabic word shariah means “road” and is used to describe the basic rules everyone can and should follow like a clear, track for the outer life.  The word tariqah indicates a path as in the desert that would be followed from oasis to oasis.  It is not clearly marked or visible but is the general guidance for the inner life.  Haqiqah or truth is the inner meaning that derives from the direct experience of practicing shariah and tariqah.  And marifah the gnosis, the knowledge of reality, that lies beyond haqiqah.           


Universal Life ChurchThis is the traditional or historic view of Sufism – e.g. that it is the mystical part of Islam and that it was developed and expressed in an Islamic context.  The modern Sufi teacher Muzaffer Ozak said, “Sufism without Islam is like a candle burning in the open without a lantern. There are winds which may blow that candle out. But if you have a lantern with glass protecting the flame, the candle will continue to burn safely.” (Quoted in ibid, p. 4)           


Universal Life ChurchIn fact Sufism is so much a part of Islam that some scholars have suggested that Sufism itself was an invention of Westerners to explain certain aspects of Islam.  Certainly, no Muslim of the early period perceived Sufism as anything other than a part of Islam.  One scholar has observed, “It would not have been possible to formulate the statement ‘Sufism has nothing to do with Islam’ prior to the nineteenth century.” (Ernst, p. xv).       


Universal Life ChurchBut despite the efforts of Muslim fundamentalists and Western media, the religion of Islam is not a monolithic institution whose members all believe the same things and act in the same ways.  First, Islam, unlike Christianity, has no hierarchy.  There is no pope or bishop and no cardinal of bishops to decide on issues of orthodoxy.  There are influential scholars and powerful people in government or commerce who can influential others but no one speaks for the entire religion.  In fact there is great diversity.  Islam after was present before the Age of Discovery from the Philippine Islands to the west coast of Africa.  At that time believers in Islam controlled much of Spain and increasingly large portions of Africa.  There were and still are large numbers of Muslims in Central Asia, Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, China, and South Asia.  It would be strange indeed if these diverse cultures developed into a monolithic institution – especially in the absence of a hierarchy.             


Universal Life ChurchMany westerners equate Islam with the actions and beliefs of a fundamentalist fringe characterized by literal interpretations, social control, and terrorism.  This fringe includes the Taliban, al-Qaida, Hamas, and other organizations motivated by extremist views and political agendas.  Their views and actions are far removed from the beliefs and actions of the majority of Muslims.  This is easy to understand if we consider the teachings and pronouncements of some of the prominent American fundamentalists.  Christian Fundamentalists have advocated for political assassination and terrorism.  Some of them have engaged in terrorism and there are right-wing Christian churches who actively preach racist doctrines.  Some of them have publicly rejoiced in natural disasters which they have viewed as the result of Divine Justice for sins.  If you are a Christian, would you want Christianity to be judged by the actions and words of such Christians?  The same can be said for extremists in other religions.  Should we judge all adherents by the actions of a few?           


Universal Life ChurchWith that said, there are two reactions that people from predominantly Islamic cultures are likely to give concerning the subject of Sufism.  Some will say that Sufism has nothing to do with Islam and others will say that Sufism is central to Islam.           


Universal Life ChurchThose who say that Sufism has nothing to do with Islam usually reflect a couple of positions.  If they are Iranians, they may hold positive views of Sufism and negative views of Islam because of their reaction to the oppressive government of Iran.  These people tend to view Sufism as liberal and open-minded and the opposite of the narrow minded, ignorant superstition (as they would say) of the mullahs who rule.  There are of course some who reject both Islam and Sufism and to them it makes little difference whether there is connection or not since they reject them (and sometimes all religion). 



Universal Life ChurchThen there are the Muslims, often fundamentalists, who consider Sufism to be superstition and idolatry.  This is at times a reaction to some of the popular manifestations of Sufism such as pilgrimages to the tombs of saints but is sometimes a political or theological position.  Some contemporary Muslims have been taught a history of Islam which excludes Sufism.  As one scholar points out there is a certain irony to this position: “It is ironic because as recently as the late eighteenth century, and for much of the previous millennium, most of the outstanding religious scholars of Mecca, Medina, and the great cities of the Muslim world were intimately engaged with what we today call Sufism.  It is doubly ironic because the fundamentalist story is belied by the religious practices of more than half of today’s Muslim population.” (Ernst. P. xiii).  Throughout the history of Islam many orthodox believers have been Sufis including prominent figures such as ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani, al-Ghazali, Salah ad-Din (Saladin), and Rumi among others.Another irony is that the main theorists drawn on by the fundamentalists include Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200) who critiqued the Sufis and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) who was a major critic of Sufi metaphysics and the practices of the blameworthy Sufis.  Most anti-Sufis of today are unaware of the fact that both Ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn Taymiyya were members of the Qadiri Sufi order.The Wahhabis (whose radically conservative form of Islam is dominant among the Saudis) destroyed all the tombs of Sufi saints and Shi’i Imams in Arabia and Iraq.  This oppressive and destructive attempt to control the hearts and minds of people is not only contemptible; it is also inevitably doomed to fail.  Such oppressive actions, whether Taliban, Wahhabis, or Iranian mullahs) are also contrary to central teachings in Islam.  In the second chapter of the Qur’an (Al-Baqarah) it stated clearly “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).On the other hand even some Sufis are found among the critics of Sufism.  Some nineteenth century reformist Sufis such as Ahmad ibn Idris of Fez condemned certain popular Sufi practices as saintly intercession and pilgrimage to tombs.


Universal Life ChurchThe more general view toward Sufism is much more accepting.  In fact there are areas where Sufism is part of the general practice of Islam.  From the view of Sufis of course the two are inextricably bound together.  Sufism is the spirit or the heart of Islam (ruh al-islam or qalb al-islam).  At the same time Sufism is the freest form of Islam (cf. Burkhardt, p. 16).           


Universal Life ChurchAt times the contrast in Sufi literature has been made between Sufis on the one hand and legalists and scholars on the other hand.  In the Sufi text The Manners of Kings the anonymous author says concerning legalists and scholars: “Each one of them is attached to the external form of knowledge, and they ignore its [inner] realities…. But I have seen no people more firmly connected to the prophetic example, both externally and internally, both secretly and openly, in terms of law, intention, and practice, than the society known by the name of Sufism” (Ernst, p. 25).


The practice of Sufism for most includes an acceptance and practice of the fundamentals of Islam including repeating with sincerity the shahadah (There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet).  Other Muslim practices which are central to Sufism include prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and almsgiving.


            Sufism has played an important role in the spread of Islam.  Sufis, traveling as merchants, missionaries, or dervishes “…spoke the local language rather than Arabic and lived out the basic obligations of Islam: simple love of, and trust in, God, and love of the Prophet and one’s fellow creatures, without indulging in religious hairsplitting.” (Vaughn-Lee, p. 25)  Like other Muslims they practiced da’wa – the invitation of others to embrace Islam.           


Universal Life ChurchThere has also been an official response on this issue – as official as one can get in a religion that has no hierarchy or monolithic organization.  There is no pope, bishop, or governing council in Islam and the Shi’a ulama in Iran must be seen as an exception to the vast majority of Muslim practice.  That official response was first stated in Amman in 2005 when a group of 200 leading Islamic scholars adopted a position that recognized Sufism as part of Islam.  This same position was adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conferences summit at Mecca in December 2005 and at six other International Islamic scholarly assemblies in 2006.           


Universal Life ChurchSufism has been the principle medium for the spread of Islam though most of its history.  Sufis traveled as wandering dervishes or as merchants along the Silk Road to China and by ship through Southeast Asia.  Dervishes also traveled through India, Central Asia and Africa.  They often traveled as marabouts that in Sufi fashion traveled with nothing more than a prayer rug, calling people to worship.  Conversion has usually been a gradual process involving the blending of local customs with Islam.  At times they have established schools and spread Islamic teachings through translations of books as well as through formal teaching.  This seems to have often been the case in Malaysia.  The teachings and examples of the Sufis are largely responsible for the spread of Islam far from its Arabian place of origin.  Today, the largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia (the fourth largest country in the world).  India has the largest Muslim population, even after the split with Pakistan, and the largest ethnic minority in China are the Hui (Muslim Chinese).  In 2000 there were around 347 million Muslims in Africa (more than in the Middle East) as compared to 359 million Christians.The Prophet Muhammad (saws)     


       The story of Muhammad is fairly familiar to most but its worth revisiting because of its importance to Sufism.  First, a comment on the role of the prophet in Islam and Sufism -- He is not worshipped as divine in any sense.  He is recognized as a man and a messenger and the Qur’an even recognizes that he was fallible.  He was however exemplary and in many ways symbolic of certain divine teachings.  The letters “saws” which often follow the name of the prophet and others are an abbreviation of an Arabic expression calling for peace to be upon him and upon his family.  This invocation is practice by Muslims including Sufis throughout the world as a sign of respect to the prophet.  Similar invocations are used to pay respect to other prophets and teachers.           


Universal Life ChurchMuhammad (saws) whose name is related to Ahmad can be translated as one who is famous and illustrious or as comforter was an orphan soon after his birth.  He was raised by his uncle and became a successful merchant.  He married the wealthy woman who was his employer and was a prosperous and respected in the Meccan society.  While withdrawn to meditate on a nearby mountain, he received the first of many revelations that would eventually come to form the Qur’an.  He taught a strict form of monotheism that included a strong emphasis on justice, morality, and the restoration of the ancient teachings of Abraham.  His religion came to be called Islam, a word meaning submission which is cognate with the word for peace.  He taught modesty, mercy, justice, prayer five times a day, pilgrimage after the ancient pattern to the shrine in Mecca which had been established by Abraham and his son Ishmael, fasting, and almsgiving.           


Universal Life ChurchFor the Sufis the Prophet Muhammad (saws) provides the model for the mystical experience.  This and many other Sufi teachings are directly from the Qur’an. His personal character is held as a model for imitation for true believers as in Qur’an 33:21: “ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar for him who hopes in Allah….”   His withdrawal on Mount Hira for meditation is considered the basis for later mystics to seek the seclusion of a forty-day retreat – a Sufi practice.  His ascension into heaven – “a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque” -- is also considered to be a model for mystics including prominent teachers such as the Persian Sufis Bayazid Bistami (d. 874) and Ruzbihan Baqli and others (cf. Qur’an 17:1).             


Universal Life ChurchThe core teachings of Sufism are traceable to the Prophet both in the Qur’an and through the oral traditions recorded as the “hadith.”  According to al-Bukhari’s hadith number 13, the Prophet said, “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself” – a teaching echoed the most of the religions of the world which has special significance to the love-orientation of the Sufis.  A similar hadith recorded by Sahih Muslim provides the same teaching, “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”


The Prophet was violently rejected early in his ministry.  He was at times stoned and his life was threatened.  He taught by precept and example that the most virtuous behavior is to engage those who sever relations, to give to those who withhold from you, and to forgive those who wrong you.  It was the Prophet’s example that led Badshah Khan to join with Mahatma Gandhi and lead the Pashtuns in passive resistance against the British.  It is also central to the teachings and practice of Sufism.


            The revelations provided by the prophets of God are central to the teachings of Sufism just as they are to the teachings of Islam.  For both these revelations are said to represent a primordial faith from the time of Abraham or before.  As the Qur’an says, “Naught is said to thee but what already was said to the messengers before thee (Qur’an 41:43).  This message is not just ancient but universal.  According to the Qur’an it has been taught at times to every nation: “We have raised in every nation a messenger” (Qur’an 16:36).           


Universal Life ChurchThe Qur’an is central to Sufism as a source of inspiration and enlightenment.  They reverence the Qur’an and its teachings as do other Muslims.  They use it to justify the teachings and practices of Sufism as with Qur’an 57:3 where it refers to God as “the first, the last, the outer, the inner” to justify a belief in the inner aspect of religion or batin as it is called in Arabic.  Other scriptures also refer to this hidden or inner aspect of religion including Qur’an 3:190 where it speaks of the “inner heart.”


Some have even theorized that devotional recitation of the Qur’an probably led to mystical interpretations.  They even use the Qur’an itself (e.g. 3:7) to show that the interpretation of the scripture lies with God or with those who have special knowledge from God – that is, who are “firmly rooted in knowledge.”


            The sixth imam of the Shi’a, Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765) was closely tied to the history of Sufism as well.  He taught (as did St. Augustine and others concerning the Bible) that there are multiple interpretations possible of the Qur’an depending on the spiritual level of the readers or listeners.  Different meanings can be found relevant to the quest for inner experience through insight based on personal experience as well as on metaphor.Characteristic teachings of the Qur’an           


Universal Life ChurchAmong the many notable teachings of the Qur’an which play an important role in Sufism are those dealing with love, peace, the oneness of God, and the universal nature of the divine message.  Following are a few of the most notable Qur’an verses.           


Universal Life ChurchThere is the Throne Verse which addresses the creative power of God: “Allah, there is no God but He – the Living, the Self-subsisting, Supporter of all, no slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is thee can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) Before or After or Behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them: for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory)” (Qur’an 2:255).           


Universal Life ChurchAnother is the Light Verse (Qur’an 24:35): “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West, whose Oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.”           


Universal Life ChurchQur’an 50:15 is often quoted in reference to the closeness of God: “It was We Who created man, and We know what suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him that (his) jugular vein.”                       


Universal Life ChurchMany passages dear to the Sufis refer to the attributes of God.  Qur’an 2:115, for example, tells of the omnipresence of God – “To Allah belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah’s Face. For Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.”


            And Qur’an 6:103 emphasizes the futility of human perception in understanding God while noting the vastness of God’s understanding.  “No vision can grasp Him, but his grasp is over all vision; He is subtle well-aware.”AssignmentAfter reading the lesson, take the time to review some basic references on Islam and the Quran.  You can refer to the reference list in Lesson One.  There are also many resources available on the internet.  The point is to just become more aware of the context in which Sufism exists as a spiritual practice.  Answer the following questions:As a minister, would you be able to help Sufis or Muslims who came to you without offending them or ignoring their beliefs?  What would you need to do to be of real service to people of other religious backgrounds? 

Universal Life ChurchHow would a study of Sufism or Islam benefit your ministry?

Universal Life ChurchYou are encouraged to post your comments to the blog created for this course or on the forum. The goal is to begin some meaningful dialogue with other ministers and to learn from the different exchanges.











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