Sufism- An introduction to the mystics of Islam

July 22, 2012 - 11:46 am 36 Comments

         An Introduction to Sufism: The Mystics of Islam

The Kailo Interfaith Community

July 22nd, 2012

The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

Many of us feel anxious and disquieted when we hear about the recent events in the Middle East- It seems as if it never ends and a new incident is always ready to appear… Amidst all the fervor of religious dissent, political upheaval, and civil war, we have to be careful… Careful not to be swayed by the media’s sensational portrayal of Islam.

However true the reported events might be, we need to look beyond headlines to the spiritual lifelines- those sources of inspiration that can be found in all the great world faiths. This is never more true than in Islam.

There is a vast repository of spiritual beauty and lasting inspiration within Islam that has had some widespread exposure such as in the writings of ecstatic poet Rumi, but over all and in any easily understood way, there is little being said about the sources and foundational ideals that Rumi and others followed.

What calls to us, what invites us to the dance of life and to the progressive unveiling of our hearts is the burning desire to profess our love for God- to bathe in its healing, to be uplifted by its wisdom and truth. This is the spiritual path called Sufism.


While it comprises only a small part of Islam, its effects reveal themselves worldwide as not only having an impact on the spread and the spiritual depth of Islamic culture, but show a blessed interaction with Judaism, early Christianity, and Hinduism in India and Asia.  (80% Sunnis; 15% Shiite; 5% Islamic Sufis)


Sufis, as a whole, can be considered the passionate lovers of God in Islamic tradition. For the most part, they are neither evangelical nor political, and yet they remain influential no matter how stridently they are opposed by the militant and the powerful within Islam. (You might have read recently about the tragic destruction of Sufi shrines, and burial sites in Africa by the militant factions trying to overthrow the country and impose Sharia law… Devotion to God and to God’s inner directives or an adherence to an understanding of truth that is higher than what the powerful try to dictate to the status quo will make you troublesome! If the concerns of your life depart from the design of polite society or from its inane and often insistent cultural controls, the Sufi will always be seen as threatening… See the life of Jesus! (Early Sufis were in dialogue with the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Christianity)

As an inclusive emphasis, we can say that Sufism is a path of devotion more than a path of intellect or ritual observances. Their mystical teachings and practices are directly aimed at breaking open the heart from its egotistical attachments and opening the mind to the higher possibilities of imagination and inspiration. Another way of saying this would be that Sufism centers itself on the progressive embodiment of holy truths.

In a forum on interfaith spiritual direction and what comprises the genuine or authentic spiritual life that was a part of my training in becoming a soul friend, a Sufi teacher spoke to us in a way that puts the visceral understanding of spirituality in more complete terms:

“[If spirituality is to be true, it must become an embodied spirituality– embodied within each person, within each human relationship, within each life situation, and within our complete understanding of the world.]”

Whatever the various Sufi schools, branches or families might lack in ecclesial organization or formal structure, they more than make up for their desire to awaken humanity and to transform human culture. Instead of the elaborate theology that can be found among the clerics and the Mullahs, Sufis claim that the “the proof of Sufism and its truth is found in its embodied demonstration.”


Sufis are loosely organized into a variety of autonomous orders, paths, and maybe most importantly in teaching styles…

Chisthi (Sufi Order of The West) concentrates on the experience of God in the heart; Helveti on the Unity of God; Mevlevi on Divine Name; Naqshbandi on silence- no voice, just music; Rifa’i the divine name Hu; Bektashi sings suras from the Koran; Suhrawardis on self observation and breath; Kalandari on rhythm and movement… (There may be others… The school or the Zhikr taught to me could be considered a 9th way as it incorporates the other eight ways into one ritual…)

And these differing groups or outlooks can be found scattered around, on almost every continent where Islam is known, and they continue to gather and to inspire no matter how various governments and orthodox mosques try to suppress them…

The term “Sufi” is said to have many inexact definitions or origins. The consensus definition is that it means “people of the wool or the wool wearers.” This consensus allows us to trace the origins of Sufism to those who would wear flax or woolen garments instead of the traditional cotton of Islamic clerics. Most often they would dress in solid colors, and this could be seen as a practice that parallels the monastic robes of Catholic monks… Within the early Sufi communities, they referred to themselves as the fuquara or those who are poor in spirit in Arabic and in the Persian language, it was dervish. When these words became translated into English, we get the words, fakir, and dervish; unfortunately, they are best known as a carnival stunt man or a whirling madman- again, a classic case of depersonalization and an uninformed Christian prejudice.

As I see it, the closer or more true definition of Sufi, fakir or dervish is to be a true disciple, an ardent lover, the devotee on a spiritual path whose aim is to stand at the door of enlightenment, bravely enter in, absorb what they can, and then become a light bearer to others, sharing the love they have come to know…

Each sincere student within a Sufi community undergoes a complex and demanding series of training’s or disciplines that are aimed at self purification or at a readiness to follow a spiritual path… This step or stage cannot skipped nor can its value be diminished. What occurs is an in-depth assessment of the person’s character under the watchful eye of the teacher, and these changes in character are encouraged by the support and caring of their training or peer group.

When Sufism began, the first command or requirement was to be a practicing Moslem; Today, however, in the West, it is a little more relaxed religiously but if the group is sincere and the teachings genuine, then there will be steps required towards ego reduction- towards holy submission/surrender; towards living a life of faith, peace, tolerance and above all, the love of God and our oneness with God and with one another…

Most Sufis believe that our society is covered by veils of illusion- a cultural onion of many layers that obscures the core or the true picture of who and what we are. Society, for the spiritual devotee, represents the layers of false thinking and incomplete, if not erroneous, interactions. The enemy of the spiritual life is not sin- its ignorance. As Mohammed stated in the Hadith, ” Anyone who does not know him or herself, cannot know God.”

All adherents of the mystical path of Sufism in one way or another accept and affirm that all humanity is linked or connected to one another- that Humanity written large is One… We Are One. The linkage or the connection is neither passive nor is it mysterious; it is gracious and dynamic. It is both healing and transformative because it flows from God and lives between and among us as the Barakath. The Barakath is very similar to the Christian Holy Spirit, and the Hindu pranayama in that it is from our breath… From our sense of connection, intimacy, and belonging that we have the courage and the faith to uncover the veils of egotism, and be able to work through the barriers or the emotional blocks we all have so that these obstacles to our devotion can be dispersed or broken down.

Sufis are true to the fact that being human means being part of humans being kind; That Human beings are all connected; That humans are united in love. They teach that we can share in the totality of reality, the sanctity, and the blessings of life.

In Islam, and primarily through the Sufi influence in Islam, there is a high and important value placed on active prayer; praying not just by sitting quietly with your hands folded, but praying with your whole body, your whole self, your whole heart.

In Sufism, your body is not only a holy temple, it becomes your best expression of an embodied prayer. In Sufi practice, as you learn to sing, chant, dance and even whirl, you do so while immersing yourself in the sound and feeling of God’s name, and the various holy qualities of soul that the names of God contain. The result of the practice encourages you to become more alive spiritually, and more open to how the grace of God can work in us, with us, and through us in our lives. This is the essence of the mystical practice of active remembrance called the Zhikr.

Approximately 25 years ago, I was fully involved with a mystical school that had Zhikr as one of its core practices. …

In the approach or the style that was taught to me, it was an exercise in movement and chant that took 15 hours to learn, and one hour to complete one round or one session… (Zhikr can be done over and over again…) Along the classical Sufi tradition, it involved standing, bending and even some sitting… It required me to move and twist my head and torso, walk in circles, all the time singing or chanting the names of God or one of the divine qualities on each breath…

I will admit to some initial awkwardness, and some disorientation, and after a while, even feeling a little dizzy… But as the practice deepens, and continued, I felt myself move beyond those anxious feelings to a sense of warmth and an inner recognition that there was the light of God within me, inside all of us, and that we shared a common fire, and a common glow…

Without stopping to analyze, reflect, or even think, my mind became more restful, flowing, peaceful… My body was active  and I felt the rhythms of the music at a cellular level, and my voice felt as if it was coming from my heart…

If and when we establish a spiritual community, I would recommend that Zhikr become a regular part of our spiritual practices…


The ultimate goal of Sufi study and practice is to enter into the mystical consciousness of God… An awareness of unity that the Sufis call fana; Itis similar to what the Hindus call Samadhi,  what the Buddhist generally call enlightenment, and what the mystical Christians have called the alchemical marriage or the experience of sanctification or the at/one/ment in God. It is feeling absorbed into the divine, where the boundaries of ego and self disappear and an experience of the divine that lives in each person becomes alive, becomes real…

However, the Sufi is not allowed to stay there, as self absorption is the enemy of a true spirituality… Therefore Sufis are never encouraged to try to recapture it in any constant way, but to use as worship and reverence that informs their everyday life. Similar to the Buddhist Bodhisattva, the responsibility is to live it out our lives engaged in society, and by our example of devotion and dedication to our spiritual ideals, to bring others to enlightenment. In the Sufi tradition it is called Bawa; or the intentional return to the world- for as Sufis teach the great task of the spiritual life

is to live in the world without being of the world

or accepting its secular consciousness as one’s own…

The mature Sufi no longer identifies with the false gods of the culture but does not run or hide from their influences. Instead, the Sufi inspired life serves to bear witness to the light of God, and its power arises from being and embodiment: acting only as agents of compassion, healing, and peace.

So I end with this: What does the way of the Sufi teach us?

That you cannot be a part time spiritual person or adopt a kind of spirituality that comforts you without also challenging you to grow more whole heartedly, more courageously and to become wise and kind…

If this group wishes to delve in further… To study in depth Rumi and many of the other Sufi poets, and how those mystical insights and outlooks speak of God, please let me know … Or … Maybe we can gather and have a Middle Eastern pot luck, and then share in night of reading and discussing Sufi poetry? With sufficient preparation, it I believe that it would be a very enriching and inspiring spiritual experience!

Now, however, its time to dance…

To gain a glimpse of how the Spirit moves in you, how living in the queendom or kingdom of God is your true home, and to awaken the light of God in every soul is the great purpose in the cosmic dance of life!

Readings: from his book, The Unity of Religious Ideals

The moment that love is produced, that person does not need to go and find out where the Truth is, because the truth is born. For it is the loving one, the loving heart, which is capable of understanding, of comprehending Truth. The reason is that the Truth is not outside of self, it is within us…

[When a person is thoughtful, when a person is considerate, when a person feels the obligations he or she has towards others, then it is something truly living within you.

The living and loving soul is what makes a person alive.] And any person who is not conscious of this, this tenderness, this sacredness of life, while that person might exist, their soul is in the grave. 

The person who is conscious of honor, the person who has a sense of shame, who has the feeling of sincerity, whose sympathy, whose devotion is alive, that person is living, that person is religious.

Hazrat Inyat Khan  in chapters 14 & 27

God and The Soul

I do not know what kind of God we have been talking about.

The caller calls in such a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk.

Why? Does he think that the Holy One is deaf?

The Holy One hears even the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of an insect when it walks…

You can zealously go over and over your beads, you can paint weird designs on your forehead, you can wear your hair matted or ostentatious; but when, deep inside of you there is a loaded gun, I ask, how can you have God?

I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water are thirsty… You do not grasp the fact that what is most alive is in your own house; and so you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!

Kabir will tell you the truth: go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet; if you can not find where the soul is hidden,

for you, the world will never be real!
There is a Secret One inside of us; the planets in all the galaxies pass through the Secret One’s hands like so many prayer beads…

The Poems of Kabir by Robert Bly Chapters 2; 8; 22


The True Jihad

When approaching the tenuous understanding that most Americans have of Islam, especially as it is fueled by media attention and further distorted by Islamic fundamentalism, I feel that it is necessary to correct a troublesome spiritual term that we can often hear from the mouths of terrorists and zealots: Jihad!

In its actual origin, jihad was the phrase used by the Prophet Mohammed to describe the spiritual essence, the very pinnacle of Islam. its highest calling! The jihad that Mohammed so enthusiastically called for is the inner war or the battle for one’s own soul; the internal warfare each person has with their own ego, with their personal desires, demons, discoveries, and dreams that become for them the working basis for their daily decision-making.

For the mature Islamic believer, and I would venture to say for the mature Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc. there are no greater enemies that the ones that live within us; there is no warfare more noble, nor battle more worth winning than the one that rages for the clarity and for the truth of one’s soul.


The earnest struggle to achieve or realize this goal is a lifelong endeavor; Its ultimate pursuit is to become a peaceful, loving person who would then work with others to create a just and compassionate society.

There are distinct levels of understanding, insight, comprehension, and practice found in every religion- and tragically, there are contradictions, inconsistencies, dualities, and just plain ignorance that is taught and practiced!

In the mind of one scholar of Sufism, we get this conclusion: The Sharia law we hear about with all of its codes and restrictions is the outer law: In contrast, but not in opposition, Sufism represents the inner law that surpasses any outward need for rigorous obedience, because a Sufi dutifully also follows the holy laws of life.

If we are fortunate in the way we are taught, in the way we are mentored, then will discern a true path through the maze of opinions and competing theologies and justifications. Within each true and genuine path, there resides the Spirit of guidance, that will instruct, inform, and inspire us.

Then we will understand this inner battle more truthfully, more completely, arriving at a sense of victory that God’s reality can become alive in us, and be seen in action through us.

Pastoral Reflection/Body Prayer: The Broken Heart

“The fastest way to God is through a broken heart.”

When I first heard this piece of Sufi wisdom, it shocked me…

At first, I recoiled when I considered the idea of having to experience the disillusionment, the estrangement, that attends to and that accompanies the feeling of having your heart broken.

As I grew in my spiritual understanding, I realized that one cannot fully protect myself or prohibit others from learning certain life lessons; neither can you just safely think or imagine your way to heaven…

A change or a challenge has to happen…

A weakness has to exposed and then mended and from the lessons learned, a strength can appear from our previously broken places, from our willingness to be vulnerable.

The spiritual path, if it is a complete, and by complete,

I mean that it is a path that contains certain demands, and a certain price one pays for awareness, freedom, and understanding, then having a broken heart as a path to personal and spiritual growth makes sense…

Sufism, despite its many approaches and differing practices, agree on this teaching: that the central purpose in life is contained within our devotion to God, and in gaining insight and compassion from the wisdom of our hearts.

They teach that the ego must be reduced or subdued, in order for the essence or the soul to shine through… They teach that we are to learn how to push selfishness to the edges of our concern, and to center our actions on living a life that is filled with love and compassionate actions.

Lastly, Sufis teach that one must risk the opening and the breaking of our hearts to truly come to understand the nature of love, and that it is from the cracks in our lives and in our hearts, that the light of God shines through…



The Sufi Aspiration

From the book, Muslim Devotions, we are given one of the best known Sufi aspirations. It has a parallel or its source can be found in Sura 38 in the Koran, and it goes like this:

[When my worshipers turn their thoughts towards Me, I am with them. When they speak My Name, and hold it within themselves, I mention them and their names within Myself.

When they declare My reality in the world, I declare their reality as a part of My concern;

If they draw unto Me a hands breath,

then I will draw unto them an arms length;

If they, in their lives, walk towards Me,

I, in My love, will run towards them…

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