An Introduction to Sufism
The following article first appeared in the journal Sufism: An Inquiry.
The pursuit of truth is the quest for a particular goal, a quest pursued no matter how difficult the path — and for the most important truths, the way may be long and arduous indeed. Tasawouf, or Sufism, is the esoteric school of Islam, founded on the pursuit of spiritual truth as a definite goal to attain: the truth of understanding reality as it truly is, as knowledge, and so achieving ma’arefat. In Tasawouf when we speak of understanding or cognition we refer to that perfect self-understanding that leads to the understanding of the Divine. This very logical principle is based on a typically succinct saying of Prophet Mohammed: “Whoever knows oneself, knows one’s Lord.” The origins of Tasawouf can be traced to the heart of Islam in the time of the Prophet, whose teachings attracted a group of scholars who came to be called “ahle suffe”, the People of Suffe, from their practice of sitting at the platform of the mosque of the Prophet in Medina. There they engaged in discussions concerning the reality of Being, and in search of the inner path they devoted themselves to spiritual purification and meditation.
The ahle suffe believed that it was the unique human right and privilege to be able to find the way towards understanding the reality of the Divine. As the cognitive tools of ordinary mental logic are limited in their ability to comprehend such a great and all- embracing subject, disputation and all discussions based on language alone cannot open any door to understanding such reality. Instead, such a path of understanding necessitates spiritual striving, the understanding and the knowledge of the heart, in its quest to realize the existence of the Divine. Such an approach separates Sufis from philosophers, and indeed from any other group of scholars whose knowledge is founded upon traditions, words, assumptions, and the imagination instead of the actual and direct understanding of all that exists. Thus the path of Sufis, of cognizant Moslems, was separate from that of the traditional understanding. They became the people of the tarigh, or the way; their particular goal was to understand and introduce the esoteric aspect of Islam, as opposed to the exoteric public elements of this universal religion.
The principles of Sufism are all based upon the rules and teachings of the Koran and the instructions of the Prophet. To a Sufi there is no gulf of separation between all of Being, the Creator, and His creations. That the multitude cannot perceive this fundamental unity is the result of the impurity of nafs and the limitations of the material and physical tools that mankind possesses. If man were free from the limitations of matter, then he would surely witness this immense and eternal unity of Being. But there is a chance for mankind to ascend to such a level of understanding, a pathway that can be followed through purification and meditation to the realization of its achievement. When one’s heart is purified, the manifestations of the Divine is reflected in the mirror of the heart. Only then may man ascend from the level of his animal nature to the level of the true human being.
Since all the principles that underlie the instructions of Sufis are based on the Koran, it is impossible to relate Sufism to any religion outside of Islam. Yet the search for true understanding and abstract knowledge of reality is a universal quest. As long as humanity endures, so too will the search for such understanding continue. History shows us that every nation and religion has its own way of expressing the universal spiritual quest.