Sufism is more than just "the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam," (Nasr 5). Sufism is one of the few spiritual paths that recognizes, embraces, and encourages a universal religious sentiment that transcends differences of gender, culture, and politics. Because of its universalism and incessant truth seeking, Sufism presents itself as a nearly perfect path to tread towards peace. Sufism plays, or at least can play, a major role in remedying many of the world's political, social, economic, and spiritual ills. As a practice bridge between the mundane and the Divine, Sufism also serves as a theoretical bridge that can link together seemingly disparate forces that struggle and wage war on a daily basis. Those struggles may be on the external or political levels such as conservative vs. liberal or Christian vs. Muslim. Or, the struggles that Sufism can moderate include those that bubble to the surface within the individual human soul. Sufism recognizes the connection between the microcosm (the individual person) and the macrocosm (God). This fundamental worldview shapes the fact that Sufism teaches that individuals have a role and responsibility in transforming the world. When an individual transforms the little self into the Self that is One with God, he or she completes a radical spiritual transformation. This transformation is meaningful not only on the level of the individual human being experiencing bliss and ecstasy -- although bliss and ecstasy are certainly considered important levels of spiritual consciousness, and worthy attainment, by the Sufi mystics. Yet there is more to the Sufi spiritual quest than the personal experience of ecstasy. From that point of spiritual power and empowerment also comes the ability to transform the world.
Although Sufism is clearly a universal spiritual path that appeals to all people, Sufism is undeniably rooted in Islam. What can be considered a deepening of Islam, Sufism acknowledges Shari'ah law "as the basis of religious life," (Nasr 4). Much fuss has been made in the mainstream media about Shari'ah law due to the misinterpretation of that law on the part of religious fundamentalists. At its heart, though, Shari'ah law is simply the law of God made manifest on Earth. Sufism, however, recognizes that even Shari'ah law has its limitations and boundaries. Shari'ah law is essentially active mainly in the immediate or mundane dimension, "limited to the plane of action, the performance of good acts, and faith in the reality of God," (Nasr 5). Sufism takes Shari'ah law a step further "toward that Truth" (called Haqiqah) which is "also the source of Shari'ah," (Nasr 5).
Thus, Sufism points the individual to the source of Shari'ah law: the reason for its very existence. Sufism can therefore point towards the reason and Truth behind any political, social, or religious code. Sufism is a natural, disciplined, personal extension of Shari'ah and any other spiritual code. Moreover, Shari'ah and Islam are not projected as being singular paths towards reaching the Haqiqah, or Truth. Sufism recognizes the multiplicity of methods of being One with God. This embracing of Oneness is what makes Sufism one of the most relevant spiritual paths extant in the world today. As Nasr puts it, "The message of Sufism is perennial because human nature is always human nature, beyond accidental changes of historical epochs and fashions of the day, and also because as long as we are human" we will always seek an answer to the ultimate spiritual questions: who am I and why am I here? (6).
Sufi poet Jal-l ad-D-n Mu-ammad R-m? wrote poetry expressing the universalism of the spiritual path. In no uncertain terms, Rumi spells out the fact that God knows no religion:
"Neither a Christian am I, nor Jew, nor Magian nor Muslim
Neither of the East am I nor West, nor of the land, nor sea
Nor from Adam nor Eve nor of Eden, nor paradise or its porter
My place is the placeless, my mark the markless;
Not either body nor soul for I am myself the Beloved"
**Rumi: from Diwan-i-Shams-I Tabrizi
Poetry is an integral part of the Sufi canon because poetry is itself a universal and transcendent language. Unlike the tedious and heavy prose that weighs down traditional religious texts, poetry has the potential to liberate the mind and engender the experience of ecstasy. To reach the Truth, one is "in a blessed state" or a mystical state that connotes actual union with God (Nasr 10). The experience of the blessed state is open to all persons.
Sufism knows no gender bias, which makes it one of the most promising of the religious traditions. Both men and women can and should attain spiritual liberation. The Sufi concept of the Universal Man points to the fact that union with God is the natural state of affairs for all humans who wish to experience such bliss. The Universal Man is the "androgynic prototype of the human state, both male and female, and also the prototype of the cosmos," (Nasr 11).
Sufis are called ahl-I dil, or "people of the heart," (Nasr 10). This is because Sufism uses language of love, including romantic love, to describe union with God. The body can be a vehicle upon which to experience true spiritual bliss; the body is the "temple of the spirit," (Nasr 11). Sufism does not advocate asceticism as part of the path toward enlightenment, making it a universal and accessible means of attaining spiritual grace.
There are embedded within Sufism references to or similarities with other major world religions. For example, Sufi spiritual practices encourage the silencing, calming and stilling of the mind that it may become a razor sharp tool. This concept echoes Buddhism. The mind should, according to the Sufi mystics, become the "illuminated instrument of the intellect, able to discern true knowledge and distinguish between truth and falsehood, substance and accidents, necessity and contingency, levels of existence, and most of all, the Absolute and the relative," (Nasr 10). Similarly, the Buddhist Four Noble Truths refer to the importance of the elimination of desire. Desire is an impediment to enlightenment because it means we are always lacking something and craving fulfillment. The Sufis agree. Sufi mystic Bayazid Bastami said, "I want not to want" (cited by Nasr 23).
Sufi is a spiritual tradition that is at its core an existential practice. According to Nasr, "Sufism addresses the few who yearn for an answer on the deepest level to the questions of who they are and in a manner that would touch and transform their whole being (4). Sufism is more than just an existential philosophy, though. Sufism represents the universal quest for knowledge as well as the willingness and courage to seek and ask the questions that can bring the individual to actual union with God. Sufism would not have the person stop at an intellectual existential quest; that would bring the person close but stopping short of the ultimate goal of spiritual practice. The ultimate goal is meaningful spiritual transformation.
Meaningful spiritual transformation has a basis in the real world. It is Sufism's understanding of the need for political and social transformation that makes it a relevant religion. Through an "annihilation of the false self," Sufism teaches harmony and social order not unlike the Confusion, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions (Nasr 10). Occasionally, Sufi poets allude directly to the political potential of Sufism to change the world. For example, Sufi poet Ibn Arabi and other poets emerged during a time of great political turmoil in the middle ages. Reacting to prevailing political conditions -- mainly the Mongol invasions in Asia and Europe, Ibn Arabi created poetry that uplifted the human soul and did not feed the negativity brewing. The situation "produced, in marked contrast to this destruction, an upsurge in mystical activity, ideas, feelings, and poetry not only in the Islamic world" and thus the greatest mystical writers emerged during this time (Schimmel 279).
Sufism is sometimes shunned by fundamentalist Muslims in part because the practice is believed to be anathema to the submission of individual to God that is central to Islam. Sufism may also be considered a dangerous threat to the tyranny of dogmatic religious traditions that rely on social control as the goal, rather than liberation, bliss, and enlightenment. Sufism is, however, clearly a path within the Muslim tradition and draws from the Quran. Islam "unveils the complete doctrine of our true nature and also the nature of the levels of reality issuing from the One, who alone is ultimately Real, (Nasr 4). Sufism can simultaneously embrace the ultimate and immutable transcendence of God, which is compatible with human seeking and searching for knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Moreover, a reference to the "levels of reality issuing from the One" suggests that Sufism does understand that there is no one true path. Sufism also understands the urgency of spiritual awakening, given the dire conditions that plague our planet. Individuals need to wake up, to take responsibility for their actions, to die to the old and worn self and wake to new one (Nasr).…