Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Sufism: A Holistic Approach to Islam Arthur F. Buehler Victoria University, Wellington, NZ

Muhammadan Path & Naqshbandis-Dr.Buehler-Part 4/6 - YouTube
Sufism: A Holistic Approach to Islam
Arthur F. Buehler
Victoria University, Wellington, NZ

NFIE Sufi Illuminations Journal

A. A Brief History of Sufism
Even during Muhammad's lifetime some of his followers desired to enter into a more intimate relationship with God beyond performing required ritual practices. Over the next three centuries a discipline of pious self-examination and refined religious psychology came into existence. The specialized technical vocabulary of this discipline, now known as Sufism, came directly from the Qur'an. Muslims who engaged in these pious activities, in addition to the required religious practices of the wider community, became known as Sufis, presumably because they wore simple woolen (Sufi) robes as tokens of their interiorized piety. In short, Sufism can be both an Islamic religious science and the collective spiritual practices of a person who desires to have a more encompassing experience of submitting to God (the literal meaning of islam).
Sufism (or a variant thereof) is the word used in western languages since the nineteenth century to designate an Arabic word, tasawwuf, the practice of those wearing wool. As an Arabic term it misleads people by labeling a profound practice by an exterior, often ostentatious distinction of the type of clothing one wears. The ascetic al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110/728) accused Sufis of concealing pride in their hearts by wearing such clothing. The English version, “Sufism,” is not any more felicitous since the “ism” of Suf-ism has allowed misconceptions, all too prevalent today in western countries, to consider Sufism and Islam as separate religious paths. This linguistic awkwardness points to other prevalent misunderstandings of Sufism. Sufi practice began in the Arab-speaking world and is coterminous with the worldwide spread of Islam itself.
To the extent that Sufis desire closeness or intimacy with God, Sufism can be roughly translated as Islamic mysticism. Insofar as these interior experiences and transformations 
are not apparent to others (in contrast to woolen clothing) Sufism can be said to be the esoteric aspect of Islam. Sufism is not a discipline where its practitioners have “secrets” to conceal. Reports from the earliest Muslim sources communicate what the Sufi enterprise entails in a more holistic manner.
B. Gabriel's Hadith
It is related that one day a man came walking from the desert into the presence of the Prophet and his companions. He proceeded to ask the Prophet a few questions. He asked first about submitting to God (islam) and Muhammad replied that Islam consists of the five pillars (attestation of one God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God, prayer, fasting, alms and pilgrimage). To everyone's shock, the guest remarked that the Prophet had spoken correctly. He then inquired about faith (iman) and the Prophet responded by listing the articles of faith mentioned in the Qur'an, e.g., God, His messengers, angels, scriptures, and the Day of Judgment. His last question was about beneficence (ihsan) and the Prophet answered that ihsan was worshiping God as if you see Him; if you do not see Him He sees you. At that point the visitor left and Muhammad informed his astounded companions that the angel Gabriel had visited them in human form.
Such a three-dimensional conception of Islam assumes that different persons have varying potential and ability for spiritual accomplishment. The vast majority of Muslims seek salvation through their daily practice of islam, informed by a faith commitment (iman). For a person who has an inclination to delve further into either of these dimensions of the Islamic tradition, he or she can spend a lifetime studying their respective fields of knowledge. Sufism encompasses the activities working toward the field of consciousness and experience represented by ihsan. Such an enterprise, explicit in the Naqshbandi context, assumes a firm foundation in faith (iman) and in the practice of submitting to God (islam) before achieving an extraordinary degree of proximity to God. Surely not all who call themselves sufis are able to achieve this advanced goal and not all of the few who reach this stage are necessarily Sufis

Another oft-mentioned triad associated with explicating Sufism is Shari`a (Arabic original meaning: path leading to the water hole but now commonly meaning Islamic law), tariqa (Arabic word meaning path or method), and haqiqa (Arabic for truth or reality). For Muslims the Shari`a represents the wide path outlining the timeless God-given rules that govern everyday life for all humans. It is the path leading to salvation. The tariqa is a narrower path, often associated with the Sufi path, leading to haqiqa, the experience of the Ultimate. These three interrelated aspects of Islam have been depicted as the one circle of Shari`a with a multiplicity of radii or paths (the tariqas) leading to the center (haqiqa). In transformative terms, Shari`a [hereafter Sharia] is medical science, tariqa is preventing disease and taking medicine, and haqiqa is eternally perfect health. The latter metaphor implies a necessary doctor or guide who has eternally perfect health -- the heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. These triads clearly show the critical role of Islamic law in the practice of Sufism.
C. Islam and Sufism
In terms of personal experience islam and tasawwuf represent two aspects or modes (within the religion commonly known as Islam) of spiritual involvement. These are two of three levels or domains of Muslim practice described in “Gabriel's hadith,” which describes works (islam), faith (iman), and perfection (ihsan).
Abu'l-Husayn an-Nuri (d. ca. 295/908) and al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi (d. ca. 298/910) expanded this threefold pattern to a fourfold framework of correspondences in the heart (represented by concentric circles). Accordingly, the breast (sadr) is connected to the external aspect of religion, islam, the domain of jurists; the first interiorization is iman located in the heart (qalb), the specialty of theologians and philosophers; the inner heart (fu'ad) is the locus of intuitive “gnosis” (ma`rifa), associated with perfection (ihsan), and the innermost essence of the heart (lubb) represents the ultimate experience of Oneness (tawhid). The latter two domains are typically those of sufis.Conceptually both Gabriel's and Nuri's framework are interlocking hierarchies, i.e., each of these inner levels of the heart encompasses and transcends the other. For example, one can perform the outward obligations of Islam, such as prayer or fasting, without any inner commitment whatsoever. The Qur'an refers to such a situation, e.g., Say [to the Bedouin] `You do not have faith.' Instead say `We have submitted;' since faith has not yet entered your hearts [Q. 49:14]. Faith transcends works while including them; just as perfection (ihsan) includes both faith and works. According to this normative Sufi construct one cannot practice Sufism without acting outwardly as a Muslim and having a sincere faith commitment.
The principle of encompassing hierarchies also applies to hierarchies of knowledge associated with these levels. Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi in his Kitab bayan al-`ilm immediately refutes the jurist's equating of jurisprudence (fiqh) with the entirety of religious knowledge (`ilm), citing a hadith where the Prophet declares a tripartite knowledge. For at-Tirmidhi these three types of knowledge are jurisprudence (fiqh), wisdom (hikma), and gnosis (ma`rifa). The sufis are the only ones who combine all three types of knowledge and thus know both the lawful and unlawful and the realm of the supernatural (`alam al-malakut) while feeling God's majesty in their hearts.1 As the notable sufi Abu'l-`Abbas al-Mursi (d. 686/1287) bemoaned, “We have partaken of the knowledge of jurists but they have not partaken of ours.”2 Transformed by spiritual experiences, Sufis found jurists who specialized in external visually observed actions to be particularly myopic when these same jurists claimed exclusive authority.
Sufis, particularly those who had studied hadith, respected the oral transmission of scripture but it was difficult for them to accept a limited notion of religious knowledge (`ilm) based solely on rote memorization of transmitted material. “Gnosis” (ma`rifa), claimed by sufis to be a higher form of infallible and certain knowledge, was devoid of the errors found in the ordinary, acquired knowledge of the Ulama. One who had certainty (yaqin) through direct intuitive knowledge of God overshadowed ordinary Ulama who had to rely on long chains of transmitters, some of whom might not have been reliable. In Abu Sa`id-i Abu'l-Khayr's (d. 440/1049) words, “Having seen who needs reports?”3 Speaking from the depths of spiritual experience, Abu Yazid Bistami (d. 261/875) proclaims, “You have had your knowledge from a dead man who had it from a dead man while we had our knowledge from the living one who never dies.”4
Works are accomplished by observable bodily actions; faith is developed through increased knowledge (`ilm); gnosis (ma`rifa) unfolds through a purified, tranquil soul (an-nafs al-mu2ma'inna); and love, the most subtle of human expressions is communicated through the most rarified human aspect, the spirit. The main purpose is to visualize certain processes, one of which has already been illustrated above: as one moves inward from the outer circumference, one is moving into more encompassing and deeper/subtler experience.
The second dynamic involves lateral movement around the circumference, (the jurist expression of religion), a legitimization process, and centripetal movement toward the center across the circles (the Sufi expression of religion), a transformation process. Jurists are interested in the external symbols and outward behavior that are associated with maintaining and outwardly legitimizing Islamic social structures through a system of law, schools, and mosques. For this reason their activities and interests overlap considerably with that of the rulers who have the power to enforce such concerns and who need such legitimacy to keep their power. It is Ulama who justify war in the name of jihad and who provide the basis of salvation to give meaning to such endeavors (martyrs go immediately to heaven). This outer level supplies stereological formulae, important psychologically, to enforce the dictates of society (if you do these things you go to heaven otherwise you go to hell). This is the stick approach to human psychology which
3 Muhammad b. Munawwar, Asrar al-tawhid fi maqamat Shaykh Abi Said, 2 vols., ed. Muhammad Rida Shafi`i Kadkani (Teheran: Mu’assasa-yi Isharat-i Agah, 1987), p. 102.
4 Kamil Mustafa Al-Shaibi, Sufism and Shi`ism (Surrey: LAAM Ltd, 1991), p. 65. 

has its usefulness. The jurist's expression of religion integrates and stabilizes society. The Sharia is the “kernel” that protects, legitimizes, and tempers the precious “seed” of spiritual practice.
This spiritual practice is required for the integration and stabilization of the outer social structure, presumes movement, change, and transformation within the individual. Instead of jihad as war, Sufis stress the “inner struggling (jihad) in the path of God,” controlling the desires and ignorance of one's lower carnal nature (nafs). The transformation process implies an unfolding, a transcending of prior states and perceptions. Often this transformation in the Sufi environment is associated with the spiritual experiences associated with performance of Sufi exercises.
Gifted and persevering travelers on the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi path may reach a stage of greater intimacy, returning to the everyday world transformed by their experiences; they normally show no outward signs of their extraordinary achievements: they are extraordinarily ordinary. After having traveled in the spiritual depths, they appear to bend over and prostrate in prayer just as they had before embarking on the Path. Rather than being merely the appearance of worship (surat-i `ibadat), however, their ritual practices have manifested the reality of worship (haqiqat-i `ibadat). When the traveler has come back radically changed to the temporary abode of the phenomenal world, every action performed in this world takes on an extraordinary quality. In Muhammad `Umar Birbali's words, it is a “revolution of Reality” whereby, “the disciple experiences such a revolution in his own ego that, having lost his first [way of] being, he experiences in his existence the certainty of another [way of] being. [It is] in regard to this great revolution [that] I have named my book Revolution of Reality (Inqilab al-haqiqat).”5
In actual human life abstractions such as circles, vectors, and radii have little meaning. Practicing Sufis work and live in the everyday world and attempt to recreate a quasi-monastic life in the world, which includes an emphasis on ritual purity, the segregation of sexes, and a plethora of utterly mundane details. Yet, it is precisely the genius of Sufism that enables the life
5 Muhammad `Umar Birbali, Inqilab al-haqiqat, 2d ed. (Lahore: Aftab-i `Alam Press, n.d.), pp. 6-7 (introduction)

of the ordinary householder to be imbued with spirituality. Although this study emphasizes the importance in Sufism of training in a meditative discipline, this is only a minuscule slice of what Sufism means to contemporary South Asian Muslims who visit Sufis. A tour of Sufi lodges in South Asia demonstrates that the primary activities of Sufis are assisting believers in their worldly affairs, counseling them in mental/physical health problems, and making amulets to protect them. One conclusion of this study is that Sufism has always had this worldly component, especially since the development of the Sufi lodge in the tenth century. I suspect that only a minority of those going to Sufi Shaykhs have ever yearned for mystical experience (those relative few had importance beyond their numbers). Few twentieth-century Indian Naqshbandi Shaykhs have emphasized a contemplative discipline and guided others along the Path. The scholarly and popular western notion that simply equates Sufis with mystics needs to be properly nuanced. 

Lecture delivered at International Mawlid un Nabi Conference 1997 at University of Illinois,Chicago Sponsored by Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (
YouTube Video 1/2 Tasawwuf (Sufism): A Holistic Approach to Islam
YouTube Video 2/2


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