May 6, 2006

Islam and the path of the heart

By Sa'diyya Shaikh


In describing Islam to others, some Muslim scholars use the analogy of a walnut. The practical, ritual and legal dimensions of the Islamic faith are likened to the outer shell. Inside this shell one finds the animating spiritual core, also known as the Sufi path, which is signified by the inner kernel. The oil that permeates all parts of the walnut represents the all-encompassing nature of Ultimate Reality, or God.

In the same manner that the shell provides protection to the kernel, the legal and obligatory rituals provide the form within which the spiritual life is allowed to ripen. Simultaneously, the kernel gives life to the shell without which it would be an empty form, barren and purposeless.

I use this image to convey the integral position of Sufism within Islam. Inside the nurturing boundaries of Islamic practice, the Sufi tradition fosters forms of spirituality that allow the seeker of God to embark on the journey of self-transformation. Based on the Islamic belief that human beings are created in the image of God, the objective of the Sufi is to cultivate and embody a perfect balance of divine qualities. To do so, the seeker needs to undertake a journey from a life characterised by thoughtlessness and egotism to one that is permeated by God-consciousness.

So what is the nature of this God that the Muslim mystic yearns for? The driving force of creation and human life is divine love and mercy. For the Sufi it is divine love that beckons her along the path of spiritual devotion. She longs for an intimate experience of the divine presence that brings her into direct contact with her true and most fundamental nature.

Sufi devotion has not only been reflected in sublime love poetry, but also in rigorous spiritual practices that overcome all that veils the lover from the Beloved. In diligently following the various techniques of self-cultivation, the seeker “polishes the mirror of the heart”. The human heart in the Islamic tradition is the most encompassing abode of the divine. Passing through a number of stages, often guided by a spiritual teacher, the seeker’s spiritual evolution ideally culminates in a state of being in which there is a collapse of boundaries between the seeker and the Sought. Here the Sufi holds sacrosanct God’s promise: “My servant continues to draw near me through free acts of devotion until I love him. When I love him, I am the eye with which he sees, the hearing with which he hears, the tongue with which he speaks and the hand with which he grasps.”

In this harmonised state of Oneness, the actions of the Sufi in the world reflect the beautiful qualities of God. Given the focus on love, intimacy and union with God, Sufism has often been described as the “path of the heart” or the “path of true knowledge”.

Sufism is commonly misunderstood as an asocial and personal experiential endeavor. In fact, for an individual on this path, spiritual transformation also significantly occurs through embodying certain types of behaviour in relation to other people.

To enable refinement of the character, the Sufi is encouraged to cultivate social interactions based on, among other things, qualities of love, mercy, justice, compassion, generosity and gentleness.

The goal of a Sufi is “to love every life as your own”. Thus, spiritual development demands an ethics of care that is socially engaged.

Taming, mastering and purifying the various inclinations of the lower self is not simply an individualistic spirituality but also one that intrinsically breaks down barriers between self and “other”, thus demanding a spiritually-imbued communal ethics.

The authoritative ninth-century Sufi teacher, Junaid of Baghdad, states that it was not the individual state of mystical annihilation that was the ultimate mystical state but rather that of subsistence in the world. So the true Sufi sage serves the lives of others.

Sufism has historically focused on the Qur’anic teaching that men and women have equal capacity for attaining spiritual development. Indeed, the mystical path by definition is more concerned with the inner state than with the outer signifiers of difference, gender or otherwise.

As Sufism has never been monolithic this has often meant -- although not always -- that women Sufis were recognised on the basis of their spiritual station rather than their gender. Some women Sufis were accepted as spiritual authorities and had male and female disciples, even in societies that were otherwise fairly patriarchal.

In fact, the central love motif of early Sufism dates back to the most famous eighth-century woman Sufi, Rabia Al-Adawiyya. Rabia is seen as the model mystic who ran down the streets of the Basra of present-day Iraq carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, saying that she wanted to set fire to Heaven and extinguish the flames of Hell, so that the seekers of God could rip down the veils of distraction, and so focus on the true goal that was the Divine Beloved. When Sufism reflects radical forms of gender equality, this is because gender is considered irrelevant to the ultimate goal of the mystical path, which makes equal demands on men and women.

In Sufi writings, there are extra-ordinary narratives of love and sexuality between human beings. In the 15th century Abd al-Rahman Jami reflects on the spiritual and pedagogic value of human love as a ladder by which humans ascend to an experience of divine love. The 13th century Andalusian Sufi mystic Muhyideen Ibn Arabi states more radically that sexual union provides the Sufi with a taste of mystical annihilation and is a locus for the disclosure of the divine.

These Sufi imaginations of gender highlight the spiritual value of love relationships and create expansive possibilities for re-thinking gender ethics in Muslim societies.

Within a worldview where love relationships are intrinsic to the refinement of character, where love and sexuality are regarded as sacrosanct, where the criteria for value are equally applied to men and women, where spiritual perfection is the goal of human life, then hierarchical male domination becomes an anathema.

I have presented some of the normative and ideal visions of Sufism. In reality, of course, one finds all shades of Sufi aspirants. There are those who embody beautiful character, and diligently strive to embody the divine attributes, those who are socially engaged, those who withdraw from society, those who are gender egalitarian, those who are sexist, those whose socio-political engagements emerge from their commitment to Sufi virtues, those who use Sufism for particular vested socio-political interests, and those who are charlatans.

Ultimately, however, the criterion for distinguishing a true Sufi must be sought in the normative standards of the Sufi paradigm. Here the simple yet profound tradition of the Prophet Muhammad is most insightful: “Among the best of you is the one most beautiful in character.”

Dr Sa’diyya Shaikh is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa

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