What is Sufism? When did it begin? These questions have as many answers as the many sufis, schools and practitioners that exist, proving the truth of an old saying that "There is no Sufism, only sufis." Is sufism, as the dictionary suggests, " a mystical expression within the religion of Islam,' or does sufi wisdom stretch back to Greek and Egyptian and Persian mysteries, influencing all the religions of Beni Israel (Judaism, Christian and Islam) and later incorporating Vedic and Buddhist thought?
While deeply respecting all religions and beliefs, the Sufism expressed by the Sufi Movement, its teachers, leaders and participants, is drawn from the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who had this to say about it:
"Sufism has never, in any period of history, been a religion or a certain creed. It has always been considered as the essence of every religion and all religions. Thus when it was given to the world of Islam, it was presented by the great Sufis in Muslim terminology. Whenever the Sufi ideal was presented to a certain people, it was presented in such a way as to make it intelligible to those people. Sufism is neither a dogma nor a doctrine; it is neither a form nor a ceremony. This does not mean that a Sufi does not make use of a doctrine, a dogma, a ritual, or ceremony. A Sufi makes use of them at the same time remaining free from them. It is neither dogma, doctrine, ceremony, nor ritual that makes a Sufi a Sufi; it is wisdom alone which is the Sufi's property, and all other things are used for convenience, for benefit. But a Sufi is not against any creed, doctrine, dogma, ritual, or ceremony; not even against someone who has no belief in God or Spirit, for a Sufi has a great respect for humanity.
Inayat Khan with Vina
The Journey to the Goal
"We have the tendency to expect in our spiritual journey experiences akin to those of the earth. If we had these, then only could we believe that are journeying. But on this journey there is at each step less to be seen until we arrive at the highest state, where there is nothing before our sight, that is, neither before the eyes, the mind, the heart, nor before the soul. Although the faculty of seeing is there, there is no object to be seen. There is the consciousness alone, the pure intelligence, in its own essence".(GNT)*
As a young man, Inayat Khan was one of the most famous musicians in India. When he came to the West, it was on the instruction of his teacher, Sayyad Abu Hashim Madani, who said, "Fare forth into the world, my child and harmonize the East and West with the harmony of your music. Spread the wisdom of Sufism abroad, for to this end you are gifted by Allah, the most Merciful and Compassionate".
A Sufi Story
It is difficult to say anything about Sufism as this Sufi story from Inayat Khan explains:
"There is a well known Eastern legend giving the idea of a soul who had found truth. There was a wall of laughter and of smiles. This wall existed for ages and many tried to climb it, but few succeeded.
Those who had climbed upon it saw something beyond, and so interested were they that they smiled, climbed over the wall and never returned. The people of the town began to wonder what magic could there be and what attraction, that whoever climbed the wall never returned. So they called it the wall of mystery. Then they said, 'We must make an enquiry and send someone who can reach the top, but we must tie them with a rope to hold them back.' When the person they had thus sent reached the top of the wall, they smiled and tried to jump over it, but the people pulled them back. Still they smiled, and when eagerly asked, 'what did you see there?' they did not answer, they only smiled.
This is the condition of the seer. The one who in the shrine of their heart has seen the vision of God, the one who has the realization of truth, can only smile, for words can never really explain what truth means".
The Word Sufi
This unpublished lecture by Inayat Khan on Sufism is from the Nekbakht Foundation Archives and originally appeared in "The Sufi" magazine in 1920.
The word “Sufi” is from a Persian word, meaning wisdom. From the original root many derivations can be traced. The Greek “sophia” is a striking instance.
Wisdom is the ultimate power. In wisdom is rooted religion, which connotes law and inspiration. But the point of view of the wise differs from that of the simple followers of a religious faith. Whatever their faith, the wise have always been able to meet each other beyond those boundaries of external forms and conventions, which are natural and necessary to human life, but which none the less separate humanity.
People of the same thought and point of view are drawn to each other with a tendency to form an exclusive circle. A minority is apt to fence itself off from the majority, from the crowd. So it has been with the mystics. Mystical ideas are un-intelligible to the many. The mystics have therefore usually imparted their ideas to a chosen few only, to a picked band whom they could trust and who were ready for initiation and discipleship. Thus, great Sufis have appeared at different times, and founded schools of thought. Their expression of wisdom has differed to suit their environments; but their understanding of life has been one and the same. The same herb planted in various atmospheric conditions, will vary in form accordingly, but retain its characteristics.
The European historian sometimes traces the history of Sufism by noticing the actual occurrence of this word and by referring only to those schools of thought which have definitely wished to be known by this name. Some European scholars find the origin of this philosophy in the teaching of Islam; others connect it with Buddhism; others do not reject as incredible the Semitic tradition, that its foundation is to be attributed to the teachings of Abraham; but the greater number consider that it arose contemporary to the teaching of Zoroaster. Every age of the world has seen awakened souls. And as it is impossible to limit wisdom to any one period or place, so it is impossible to date the origin of Sufism.
Not only have there been illuminated souls in all times; but there have been periods when a wave of illumination passed over humanity as a whole. We believe that such a period is at hand. The calamity through which the world has lately passed, and the problems of the present difficult situations are due to the existence of boundaries; this fact is already clear to many. Sufism takes away the barriers which divide different faiths, by bringing into full light the underlying wisdom in which they are all united.
Though our numbers in England are still few, we are encouraged by the strength of the idea; and we recognize as Sufis all those groups who are working with the aim of uniting humanity. We welcome any who sympathize with this object; and if many of these souls have limited ideals, our ideal does not oppose or attempt to break down the ideals of others; for we believe that our ideal is in the depth of every soul, and sooner or later we must touch that depth in many. Although man is easily influenced by emotions of hatred or prejudice, and can be quickly stirred to rebellion and bloodshed, yet the love of amity and harmony is more infectious still. Through all periods of tyranny and oppression, of injustice and revolution, what the world really seeks in peace.
It is true that not everyone knows for what he is really looking. He waits to be told. But when the truth is told him, he has little difficulty in recognizing it. Every soul has a definite task, and the fulfillment of this individual purpose can alone lead him aright. Illumination comes to him through the medium of his own talent. By taking his particular line in life, he fits into the scheme of the whole, and thus attains his own goal.
He must first create peace in himself, if he desires to see peace in the world; for lacking the peace within, no effort of his can bring any result. Now it is the knowledge of the self, of the ego, that gives knowledge of humanity; and in the understanding of the human being lies that understanding of nature, which reveals the law of the whole creation. The knowledge of the self is therefore the essential. This cannot, however, be attained by study alone, although study is important. It is by following the path of meditation that the initiate arrives at the realization of self. In this state he does not regard another as friend or foe, but as himself. He is then able to hold the reins of self in his hand. He has the mastery of his own life, a control which develops in time into a hold upon life in general.
The Sufi teachings were brought to the West in 1910, when a start was made in America, where the work is still being carried on. During the last eight years, interest to a small extent has been kindled in different parts of Europe. Today by the grace of God, after many difficulties, we inaugurate the headquarters of our movement. Through the generosity of one devoted heart in providing us with a house, it has been possible to establish the Khankah or headquarters of the Order in England.
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In this article, Hidayat Inayat-Khan, the youngest son of Inayat Khan, writes about Sufism.
Sufism is neither a religion nor a cult nor a sect, nor is it only from the East nor from the West. Sufism, which means wisdom, has always been and shall always be an open door to Truth, with sympathy towards all beliefs, while at the same time avoiding speculation upon abstract concepts. Sufism believes in the Divine origin of every form of worship in which the unity of religious ideals is respected.
When pronouncing the word ‘Sufism,’ the “ism” tends to suggest a limited understanding of wisdom, but wisdom can never be defined. For a Sufi, there are just as many expressions of wisdom as there are seekers after wisdom.
Sufism is not a religion; it is an attitude, a path. It is the path of love for mankind. It is not a speculative adventure; there is no searching after phenomena. Sufism does not mean being any better than anybody else. Sufism means to be a human being, so that others might perhaps benefit from the experience.
When offering as a brother or a sister to partake in easing the burden of misunderstandings between believers, the Sufi uses the language of spiritual liberty to communicate sympathy and dedication in support of the various understandings of the one Ideal of worship.
The Sufi emblem is a flying heart, symbolically representing the great power of love as it reaches upwards, carried upon wings of “Spiritual Liberty” into the spheres of Divine Consciousness. In this symbol, the five-pointed star represents the light of the Spirit of Guidance, illuminating the way all along the journey toward inner awakening. The crescent moon represents the receptive and expressive qualities of the heart set free when the limited self is no more the spectator.
The religion of our time is destined to be the religion of the heart, for the heart is the temple of God, wherein, when wisdom prevails, love, harmony and beauty together constitute the living altar.
Upon the altar of the unity of religious ideals, the burning lights represent the great world religions, as well as all those who, whether known or unknown to the world, have held aloft the light of Truth through the darkness of human ignorance. A further aspect of the Universal Worship is the offering of passages from various holy scriptures placed side by side, with the object of discovering the similarity found in all, provided that the teachings are received at a spiritual level of understanding.
During this sacred ceremony, the blessings of all the great Masters are profoundly felt when one’s heart is open to the pure essence of all religious inspirations, and when these are seen as so many rays of light coming from one and the same source, which is destined to shine for the welfare of all humanity.
What is really experienced in worship? What is really understood by prayer, contemplation and meditation?
Is it not, perhaps, the call of the heart? The spiritual path is a process of tuning the heart to an inner pitch, which is only heard when the doors of the heart are open, and the absence of the self miraculously reveals the silent tone within. This process can be traced in all religious teachings, and in this process lies the whole secret of happiness and inner peace.
What is the heart?
Is it not the temple of God? And if so, could we really venture to invite the Divine Presence into that temple if impurities such as the ‘I am’ concept are there, along with all our doubts and fears and wants?
But what does this all really mean?
It means that as beloved ones of God, we are expected to remind ourselves of the noble responsibilities which are ours. It is then that one might eventually discovers that God-consciousness, which one had been frantically pursuing, is in fact already there. But so long as this consciousness is not an expression of the heart, then whatever be the external appearance of spirituality, piety or morality, this all remains void of Godliness.
If God-consciousness could be explained at all, it is certainly an unconditional reality of love, human and Divine; and it is with the great power of this profound realization that all brothers and sisters of all convictions humbly unite in Love, Harmony and Beauty.