Delving Into Sufism – Analysis


By Dr. Mohamed Chtatou – Eurasiareview

Sufism is considered the mystical side of Islam, the bearer of the hidden mysteries of divine revelation. In its essence, it is defined as a spiritual path and is translated into the existence of individuals through a rigorous process of self-education that aims to purify oneself of vices and thus to be softened by virtues.

The final goal of the Sufi mystic is to ascend to the heavenly heights, that is to say, to attain the highest possible consciousness that will enable him to gain access to the veiled knowledge of reality, the so-called esoteric knowledge, expressed in Arabic by the term al-batin, in addition to the apparent, exoteric side of that same reality, called ad-dahir.

The Sufi exercises an inner effort to transform himself, imbued with an ardent passion that takes him to his supreme condition in a spiritual journey of transcendence towards the effacement of the visible to the dazzling, that is to say, to the divine center of his Being from which the Truth, the Eternal, the Sublime and the Beautiful are apprehended. And in this journey of inner elevation, the Sufi aspirant considers Love as the highest of steps.

In Sura 18 (verses 65-82), Khadir, an enigmatic figure, the initiator of the prophets and saints, tests Moses three times by performing acts that seem to contravene the Law. Moses places himself under his obedience, but he soon becomes impatient and rebellious because he sticks to the external norms of the Law. Khadir, for his part, judges according to the profound reality of things : he explains to Moses the validity of his acts, then leaves him there. Thus the Qur’an indicates the superiority of inspired inner science over the religious data intended to govern the world of forms.

The Birth Of Sufism

Sufism was born from the 8th century onwards in the East and more precisely in Iraq and Iran. Originally, the practice was an individual choice for asceticism, contemplation and prayer. As Muslim societies grew towards prosperity, the early Sufi mystics made the opposite choice, moving away from the urban centres to lead a secluded life in the valleys and deserts, far from earthly pleasures and in abstinence from opulence and luxury, in poverty and austerity.

From the 11th century onwards, Sufism emerged from its ascetic version as an individual experience to become a path of spiritual teaching, i.e., a path of spiritual initiation, known in Arabic as tariqa, and organized itself around the example of a master then called a sheikh who transmitted his spiritual influence to aspiring disciples called murid.

As an Islamic proverb testifies, there are several initiatory paths : “the paths to God are as numerous as the souls of men“. There are therefore several brotherhoods that will mark the history of Islam, such as the well-known brotherhood of dervishes that flourished in Ottoman Turkey and many others that were established in many countries, such as the Taybiyya brotherhood that became from the 17th century the most powerful Sufi brotherhood in Morocco, the brotherhood of Derkaoua founded in the 12th century or the brotherhood of Shadiliyya to which the famous Zaouïa Naciria of the Draa Valley in southern Morocco is linked.

The origin of the Sufi name, is tasawwuf in Arabic. It remains unknown and several hypotheses are being debated. Some believe that the term refers to the Arabic word suf, which means wool, in reference to the white woollen robe that was once worn by the disciples of this spiritual path, who in ancient times were themselves called faqir, which means poor, and then took the name of Sufi. For these faqirs, poverty was the robe of the pious man, the mantle of the expression of their piety.

Another thesis links the origins of the word tasawwuf to the very historicity of Islam, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad whose teachings attracted a group of scholars who were then referred to by the word sufiyya, meaning the “people of the bench.” These disciples had indeed taken the habit of sitting at the entrance of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. Thus, while waiting, they engaged in discussions on the search for development of the Being and devoted themselves to meditation.

A third thesis, which is not well supported however, notes the kinship of the word Sufism with the Greek word sophia which means wisdom or knowledge.

Sufism In Islam

Sufism is an aspect of eternal, universal wisdom, and as such it has existed since Adam. From a historical point of view, it was incarnated in the body of the Islamic religion, which was born in Arabia in the 7th century. It can therefore be defined as the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam. In the Qur’an (57 :3), God is presented as being both External and Internal, Apparent and Hidden. However, for the Sufis, creation is in the image of God. Behind the world of appearances, forms, dogma, and law, there is therefore an inner reality (Haqiqa) which is its true foundation, and gives it meaning.

It is this reality that the Sufi tends to perceive, starting from the outer, peripheral norm, the shari’a, and progressing along the Initiatic Way (tariqa), which links appearance to essence, bark to core. This introspective process is traced in the Qur’an (51 :20) : “On earth there are signs for those who are endowed with sure vision. And in yourselves, do you not see ? ».

Access to spiritual realities, to the “only Real” God (al-Haqq, the major name of God in Islam), has as a prerequisite i.e. the loss of our illusions about the world and our own ego. It takes shape through inspiration and “unveiling“, which do not obliterate reason but transcend it. Inspiration is heir to prophetic revelation : it can fall to a simple being, foreign to the theologians’ elaborations. As for unveiling, it allows us to lift the veils that the sensitive world casts on man, and dispels the doubt associated with speculative sciences.

The Sufis have assigned several goals to their discipline. They agree on the need to purify the soul in order to be transparent to Allah and to acquire the “noble virtues” of the Prophet : “You are indeed endowed with a sublime character,” says the Qur’an to him (68 : 4). For most Sufis, purification is only a means, one must know Allah in order to worship Him better. However, one cannot know Allah as long as the ego interposes itself between Him and the human conscience : it is by extinguishing itself in Allah (al-fanâ’) that the initiate realizes that He alone is.

Doesn’t the profession of faith of Islam affirm that “there is no god but Allah” ? For the Sufis, this formula means : “There is only Allah,” for the created and the contingent necessarily fade before the Absolute. The initiate, immersed in the Presence of God, then sees nothing apart from Allah, but once back among men, he must “subsist” in Allah (baqâ’), that is to say, see Allah in every being, in every manifested thing, which is more difficult… The Sufi therefore does not reject the world. “Beings were not created for you to see them, but for you to see their Lord in them,” says a Sufi. The Qur’an repeatedly urges man to decipher the “signs” (âyât), to know Allah by contemplating His manifestation : “We will show them Our signs in the universe and in themselves until they see that it is the Real [God]” (41 :53).

Sufism In Daily Life

The journey of the Way (tariqa) involves too many tribulations and perils to be accomplished without the help of an experienced person. An ancient Sufi once said, “He who has no guide, has Satan as his guide.” Therefore, the practice of Sufism is inconceivable without the initiatory relationship between the sheikh and his disciple, which is similar to the relationship that the Prophet had with his Companions.

Various methods exist to lead the aspirant to spiritual realization. The retreat (khalwa), for example, used to last forty days or more, but it is now conducted over three days. The master or his representative must control the recluse, for the intense exercises he performs can be perilous for the psyche. The major spiritual support remains without a doubt the practice of dhikr, an Arabic term meaning both “remembrance and invocation of Allah.” In many instances, the Qur’an makes dhikr the best spiritual therapy and the highest form of worship (29 :45 ; 13 :28…). Only dhikr, in fact, makes it possible to fight against the amnesia that afflicts man, forgetting the Pact (mîthâq) sealed with God in pre-eternity.  The invocation formulas are Lâ ilâha illâ Llâh (“there is no divinity but Allah“) or such a divine Name as : (yâ Hayy / “O Living One” …), and the “Name of Majesty”, Allah, which synthesizes all the others. Dhikr can be practiced alone or in a group, in a low or loud voice. Group dhikr sessions can bring together several thousand people. A spiritual “dance” then accompanies the movements of the soul, the best known in the West being the gyratory dance of the Whirling Dervishes, which symbolizes the rotation of the planets around the sun.

For the Sufi, the music he hears is like an echo of the Divine Word and is a celestial harmony, like the sounds of the reed flute (ney) so prized by Rûmî (d. 1273), the great poet and founder of the Whirling Dervishes, because it reminded him nostalgically of the primordial state of union of man with his Creator.

Collective sessions of spiritual music (samâ’) were widespread in the land of Islam. Mystical poems were sung with or without instruments and provoked ecstasy and trance, even among the ulemas and muftis who attended. Nowadays, singing and music remain spiritual supports within the confraternity circles, and Sufi music ensembles perform all over the world, using at times their Trance music to heal mental disorders, chase evil spirits jinn or cleanse the soul from negative energy, like in the cases of the world-known Sufi music group of Jajouka from Morocco.

Sufism As The Living Heart Of Islam

Sufism developed in the Sunni climate because it is based on the internalization of the Prophet Muhammad model, the Sunna. The fundamental master-disciple relationship only makes sense in reference to the Prophet, the Master of Masters, and every Sufi order finds its legitimacy in the “initiatory chain” that goes back to him. The Muslim saints are thus nourished by the blessed influx of divine grace (baraka,) of the one who is for them “the perfect Man”.

Sufism cannot be a marginal phenomenon in Islamic culture, as it strives to constantly maintain harmony between the exoteric and esoteric aspects of the Islamic message. Sufism illuminates the dogma and rites of Islam from within, giving them meaning. In the face of the growing influence of Muslim law over the centuries, the Sufis, who were often great ulemas, remind us that only the Spirit is able to enliven the forms and combat the sclerosis of Islamic thought. It is in this that they define their discipline as the living heart of Islam.

In the course of their spiritual experiences, the first Sufis, who appeared in Iraq in the ninth century, sometimes shocked the Muslim establishment. However, they learned from the trial of Hallâj (born in 858 and executed in 922), and some even condemned the disclosure of “divine secrets” because not all truth is good enough to be told. They tried to highlight the fundamental orthodoxy of Sufism : the Sufi path is marked by spiritual “stations” that all have their origin in the Qur’anic lexicon ; Sufism is none other than full, complete Islam, because it takes into account all the dimensions of the Islamic message.

Sufism has truly gained its rightful place in Islamic culture with Ghazali (1058-1111), an illustrious scholar who, after feeling a spiritual void, left all his functions to take the mystical path : he confessed at the end of his life that Sufism is the only discipline that enables him to reach Allah and merge with him, in the best of ways possible.

It was in the 11th and 12th centuries, a period during which many Christian monastic orders were born, that spiritual families were created in Islam. The light of prophecy had then gradually faded, and it was up to the Sufi sheikhs to take charge of the education of the faithful : specific supervision and appropriate initiation methods were put in place. The brotherhoods – which should rather be called “initiatory schools” – then responded to a need for spiritual and social structuring that the ulemas were unable to satisfy. After the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the collapse of the Abbasid Empire, only the Sufi networks offered a vision of the world that transcended the vagaries of history.

Some major brotherhoods and their birthplaces are : the Qâdiriyya (Iraq, 12th c.), the Khalwatiyya, (Caucasus, 14th c.), the Naqshbandiyya (Central Asia, 13th, 14th c.), the Shishtiyya (India, 13th c.), the Shâdiliyya (Egypt-Maghreb, 13th c.), the Mawlawiyya (“the Whirling Dervishes” : Anatolia, 13th c.) etc. These “motherways” were later divided into branches, which acquired greater or lesser autonomy and each branch bore the name of its founder, to which it sometimes added that of its initiatory source. For example, the ‘Alâwiyya (20th c.), came from the Darqâwiyya (early 19th c.), which itself had its origin in the Shâdiliyya (13th c.).

Love As Path To Realization Of The Divine In Oneself

The mystical Muslim adopts the path of Allah’s Love to access the knowledge of God. For him, this elevation to the divine is possible here on earth and in existence itself. This is why he chooses to devote himself entirely to this experience which must lead him to the eternal Truth.

To reach this Truth, in the heart of the heights of consciousness, the Sufi neophyte takes an initiatory path, the tariqa, which leads him to discover within himself the premises of an ecstatic state. This is the beginning of the path of emancipation from one’s own limitations.  The Sufi writings testify then that the soul of the mystical lover, leaving behind the ephemeral, rises towards the Sublime, and lets him see the Impenetrable :

If you come to know yourself completely, if you can honestly and harshly face both your dark and your bright sides, you will reach a supreme form of consciousness. When a person knows himself, he knows God. (The book of Chams de Tabriz by Jalâl Ad-Dîn Rûmî, Persian mystic poet (1207-1273))

The Sufi’s preferred means of moving towards this point of consciousness is the dhikr rite, the practice of repetitive, litany-filled recitation of divine names or formulas from the Qur’an that places him in a state of contemplation of Allah, through the maintenance of a constant and meditative thought about Allah. Thus the mind of the postulant, submerged in the ocean of contemplation, is absorbed by the Divine Spirit. It is the accession to a state of abstraction, called in Arabic istighraq, from which the view of the beauty of the existence of the One is finally granted and one feels the sweet spiritual intoxication, called in Arabic sukr :

This is what is required of a Faithful of love that God leads in this world through the degrees of human love to the ascent of divine love ; because in the garden of love it is one and the same love, and because it is in the book of human love that one must learn to read the rule of divine love“. (Song of Rûzbehân Baqlî Shîrâzî (1128-1209), a Sufi mystical figure, Persian poet and philosopher.)

The Sufi initiate is certain that the light of divine sublimity is incarnated in his soul through his heart, which explains why Love (‘ishq) and Tenderness (maHabba,) towards Allah, is the privileged path for him. He has faith in the mystical equation that structures Sufism : once he reaches the higher states and the attributes of the human, the evanescent creatures disappear and leave those of the Creator, the Permanent, to remain, for ever. In fact, the Sufi initiate becomes a divine sage, a connoisseur of Allah and an enlightened believer :

If it is the Spirit who wins the victory over the soul (nafs), the heart will be transformed in him, and at the same time, will transmute the soul by the spiritual light that will spread in it. The heart then reveals itself as it really is, namely, as the tabernacle of the divine mystery (sirr) in man. ” (René Guénon, French intellectual (1886-1951))

After the early stages of ascetic experience, and once a theoretical and ritualistic corpus had matured, Sufism underwent a period of philosophical influence with the works of personalities such as Mohyed-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), a great Sufi and Andalusian philosopher nicknamed “the Greatest Master.” But the expansion of Sufism was above all linked to the progressive Islamization of the peoples conquered by the Arab armies, particularly in the Maghreb, where the building of the first mosques was intended to encourage the Amazigh tribes to adhere to the values of the new religion.

Fascination With Sufism

The fascination with Sufism lies in the fact that it is a spiritual Islam. It thus presents itself as a solution to the supremacy of the social dimension in Islam, i.e. the shari’a considered by the vast majority of Muslims as sacred and timeless, which constitutes an obstacle to the evolution of Muslim societies and hinders their transition to the modern age. In the West and particularly in France, where secularism is being put to the test in the face of this increasingly demanded body of legislation, encouraging Sufism is, for many, a way of moving towards a European Islam more compatible with the values of the Republic.

Sufism is also known to be a doctrine of tolerance and coexistence, which can only be seductive at a time when violence in the name of Islam is a cause for concern worldwide. This criterion of tolerance is attributed to it by the fact that it prevails over the spiritual dimension of Islam. However, in a spirituality, which has as its sole objective the worship of the divine, not only are all Islams equal, but all religions are equal. There is also the fact that Sufism sings the praise of universal love ; what better than love to counter violence and fanaticism ?

However, recognizing these positive aspects of Sufism should not prevent us from looking at it more realistically. It is important to emphasize that regardless of the universality of its discourse, Sufism is a doctrine that belongs to Islam.

Although Sufism is spiritual, it does not reject the social dimension of Islam, and this has been the case since the rapprochement between Sufis and jurists around the 12th century. The Sufi masters highlight the interest that their doctrine gives to the recommendations of Allah and his Prophet. Some like Ruzbehan and al-Ghazali were masters in jurisprudence. Sheikh Khaled Bentounes, the spiritual father of the Sufi brotherhood al-Alawiyya, wrote on this subject : “Islam, like any religion, has an outward appearance, made up of laws, doctrines, precepts, etc., which are the basis of the religion of the Sufi. But, the Sufis are not satisfied with this.”

As for the principle of love, Nacer Hamed Abu Zayd warns, in his book “Thus Spoke Ibn Arabi,” against the sublimation the Sufis have for Ibn Arabi as an icon of Sufi love. He used the latter’s texts to show that in particular circumstances he made statements that went against the principle of love he was singing about.

Encouraging Reason As A Rational Faculty

However, the most negative point of Sufism lies in its epistemological theory. It is based on principles that encourage neither intelligence nor rational thinking.

It is important to clarify that the rise of Wahhabism is not a consequence of the weakening of Sufism, but of the absence of a thought capable of taking a critical look at itself and at the Salafist and literalist doctrines on which it is based.

Thus, in order to combat Wahhabism, it is not enough to confront it with its sworn enemy, Sufism. To combat Wahhabism, one must value creative thinking and encourage reason as a rational faculty. However, Sufism belongs epistemologically “to the great theory, which finally brings together all Islamists, except for certain schools, considering that human thought cannot constitute access to knowledge and truth. ” (Cf. Razika Adnani, Islam : quel problème ? Les défis de la reforme, page 32.)

Sufi epistemology is based on the theory of the saints, based on the idea that knowledge is not accessible through intellectual speculation or sensitive perceptions. It can only be accessed through inspiration and spiritual revelation. It is therefore, once again, God who reveals the truth to those who have attained inner purity, that is, to the initiates, to the saints. He who receives the truth will seek neither to dismantle nor to explain it, but simply to pass it on.

With this theory, Sufism promoted superstition and the magical spirit, antipodes of creative and rational thought, which the Sufi brotherhoods, legitimate daughters of Sufism, spread among the people. The period of the flourishing of Sufism, between the 12th and 19th centuries, was one of poverty and decline for the Muslim world ; the value of a theory or idea is certainly measured by its effects on the reality of the people who believe in it and on their behavior.

Thus, the discourse on tolerance and love advocated by the Sufis, which can only be interesting, should not prevent us from taking a critical look at Sufism, from being cautious so as not to add a sleepiness of thought to that which already exists.

Sufism In Morocco

In Morocco as in its native lands, Sufism began its implantation through the dissemination of ascetic experiences carried by isolated personalities. Despite their withdrawal from the rest of the world, these Allah worshippers, these marabouts, facilitated the spread of Islam and the Arabic language in rural areas among the tribes, conveying the values of tolerance and self-improvement.

Since the 9th century, Sufism spread in Morocco through the spiritual influence of various personalities recognized as scholars, sages or saints and who organized around them the grouping of their faithful in brotherhoods implanted in all the territories of Morocco in the form of zaouïas, a true relay place of the religious teaching and the authority of the Sufi master, his disciples and later on his successors.

Sufism, via these brotherhoods and their zaouïas, imbued the entire Moroccan population with its spiritual and philosophical values, those that advocate the elevation of the individual, peace, tolerance and living together. But above all, the zaouïa became a focal point of religious authority and thus of structuring local society, particularly thanks to the social actions undertaken towards the most destitute and thanks to the economic power conferred by the progressive accumulation of wealth resulting from the payment of offerings by the faithful, and particularly with the establishment of the rite of the ziara.

The ziara is a periodic – often annual – pious visit that the faithful make to a holy place and its marabout. It is a day of recollection and prayer, but above all of renewal of the pact of trust and allegiance with the spiritual guide, and on this occasion a gift is made to him.

Little by little, stronger personalities established their authority around their spiritual radiance and thus their quality as sheikhs. Bearers of their religious legitimacy, their influence would naturally extend to the political, social and economic sphere of the territory where they were established. Over the centuries, and because the Amazigh tribes quickly understood the interest of being linked to these leading personalities, the cult of the marabouts became customary. These pious Sufis, both living and dead, became the object of worship by the crowds of the faithful among the Muslims and the Jews alike.

Throughout its history, Morocco is thus strewn with zaouïas, these places of teaching related to various Sufi brotherhoods such as the Zaouïa Tijaniyya, the Zaouïa of Illigh, the Zaouïa of Dila or the Zaouïa Naciria at Tamegroute in the Draa Valley.

Literally, the word zaouia means angle. This word also comes from the Arabic verb inzaoua which means “to withdraw.” In its essence, it is the place where the wise man welcomes his disciples and which also serves as a shelter to feed and house the most destitute. Qualified as friends of God, in Arabic Waliyu Allah, these wise men are usually called Sidi or Moulay which means my Master. The reputation and religious prestige of some of them was limited to one locality, while others extended their spiritual fame and religious influence to the whole of Morocco and even to a large part of Africa, like Tijaniyya Sufi order, to the point of becoming indispensable interlocutors and partners for the central authorities, first and foremost the Sultans or Presidents :

“None of us will have the empire, but none of us will have it without us.” (Moulay Tayeb son and successor of the founder of the Taybiyya brotherhood)

In fact, the zaouia became the real driving force of local society, where religious, social and, of course, political authority was exercised. This meshing of Morocco by these myriads of zaouïas greatly influenced the very organization of Moroccan society. Thus today the local administration relies on the functions of khalifa and muqaddam as a relay between the public authorities and the population. The khalifa was in fact the direct assistant to the Sufi Master, the sheikh, who was invested with some of his powers in his absence, and the muqaddam was the executor of the Sufi Master’s directives to the community of his followers, the true disseminator of the doctrine of his tariqa, and his brotherhood. The word sheikh, which was once used to designate the spiritual heart of the brotherhood, was even used to signify a high office of public authority in a given territory.

The mystical culture of Islam has deeply permeated the people and the elite of Morocco and its traces remain visible today through the remains of all those zaouïas whose names embroider the country with the sometimes flamboyant memory of these countless marabouts who have thus shaped the history of Morocco’s territories, and whose homage is still perpetuated around the mausoleum that houses their remains. While this reality bears witness to Morocco’s identity, it is also a sign of enthusiasm for the divine that animates the people and the structuring role of religion (both Islam and Judaism) in the construction of the country.

Thus Sufism becomes, as it expands, both an essential component of the religious identity of Moroccans and at the same time a framework for the growth and development of the country within the religious philosophy of tolerance, coexistence and communion.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter : @Ayurinu

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Chtatou, Mohamed.« Unveiling The Bektashi Sufi Order – Analysis. » In Eurasia Review of April 23, 2020. 2020

——-«Ibn ‘Arabi And The Search For Humility And Purity – Analysis. » In Eurasia Review of February 6, 2020. 2020.

——- « Soufisme vs. Islamisme dans le Maroc d’Aujourd’hui. » In Article of December 1, 2019.

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——- « The Jajouka Master Musicians : A Universal Hymn To Tolerance And Peace From Morocco To The World – Analysis. » In Eurasia Review of September 16, 2019. 2019.

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.



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