The need to be organised in groups in following their teachings is common to all the traditional religions. It was especially during the VI-VII/XII-XIII centuries that the Sufi orders or ways saw their greatest flowering. Many believers had, in fact, developed the need to have a sure and experienced guide (shaykh) for their mystical journey. This was how there were formed ‘the ways’ (in Arabic tarîqa/turuq = via/vie), at times called Sufi confraternities or orders, usually called after their founders.
These Sufi confraternities began to organize themselves around a master of recognized experience, adopting a common order or rule of life, marked by particular spiritual practices and a certain type of common life, even if their members were mostly married, working or practicing a profession. With the passage of time, these Sufi orders were increasingly organized, becoming important spiritual centres in the entire Islamic world. Many of them took on commercial or artisan activities, thus becoming one of the most important means for the spread of Islam in the most distant regions of Asia and Africa. It must also be noted that many Sufi orders assumed a militant-military character, giving a considerable contribution to Islamic military conquests in all the continents. Many of them also cooperated in the slave trade, especially in Africa and Asia. For that matter, we know that politics and religion have always been closely united in the life and practice of Moslems throughout their history. The Sufi confraternities have had, and continue to have, a very important role in education, the formation of believers and in the inculturation of Islam in different peoples. It was also by means of the Sufi orders that the various cultures brought to Islam their local colours, enriching with the variety of their expressions, a religious practice that is, in itself, rigidly regulated by a uniform law in the entire Islamic world.
In this way, by means of efficient organisation, the Sufi orders acquired such power and prestige that they played important political roles in the traditional Islamic societies. The modern Moslem reformers, in fact, have taken a hostile position towards the old Sufi orders, because, according to them, they are responsible for the mental and material backwardness of Islamic societies.
Recently, these Sufi orders have become the target of attacks by the ‘fundamentalist’ currents of contemporary Islam. The latter are quick to refer to the old anti-Sufi controversy present in Islam since the III/IX century, an epoch in which there emerged the first opposition to Sufism by the ‘doctors of the law’. This anti-Sufi controversy was confirmed afterwards by many Moslem jurists, in particular by the patriarch of Islamic fundamentalism Ibn Taymiyya (m. 728/1328). In the light of those historical premises, these ‘fundamentalist’ currents condemn the Sufi orders and their spiritual practices as deviations from original Islamic purity that was codified by the traditional schools of Islamic law or sharî’a of which they claim to be the upholders.
It is not possible for us to dwell any longer on the historical phenomenology of Sufism. These few lines are sufficient to convey an idea of the richness, variety and the problematic of this spiritual movement of Islam which, in our days, is experiencing a kind of rebirth that is accompanying the contemporary reawakening of Islam. We wanted to highlight some fundamental themes that make up the permanent network of Islamic spirituality: asceticism, love, union, divine manifestations, the perfect Man and the Sufi ways. We have also brought out some basic problems, both historical and dogmatic.
The structure of the Sufi journey.
In his mystical journey, the Sufi has to pass through three fundamental stages or levels:
The law (sharî‘a): this is ‘the way’ (the primary meaning of the Arabic word) established and revealed by God which no-one can change. The law (sharî’a), is summed up in the five pillars of Islam, which must be observed by every good Moslem and scrupulously by the Sufis. This is the starting point for every Sufi journey: no one can pretend to be a Sufi if he does not observe the divine law (sharî’a) revealed by God.
The way (tarîqa): this is the ‘way’ (this is the primary meaning of the Arabic word); it is a method of life to implement the deepest intentions of God in his law. At this point, the ascetic effort dominates: the beginner seeks to purify his heart to make it disposed to the action of God. This is an intermediate stage and necessary in order to reach the goal of the Sufi journey.
The Truth-Reality (haqîqa): this is the final stage and consists in the discovery or ‘revelation’ of the supreme Reality, God, the ultimate end of all spiritual journeys. The Sufi, therefore, is called to pass from the exteriority of the forms to a personal and live experience of the ‘taste’ (dhawq) of the Divine reality, the source of true Sufi knowledge. However, at this point, the Sufi experience clashed many times with the legalism of the jurists. Many times the white rose of the Sufi experience has been purpled with the red of their blood, according to a widespread image-symbol of their experience. It is the mystery of the encounter between two liberties: that of man and that of God, the Absolute. The latter is a Liberty that always surprises and scandalises those who are bound to the exteriority of the law and religious symbols.
In Sufism, it is taken for granted that the Absolute Reality-Truth, God, cannot be defined by laws or formulae: it greatly surpasses ‘anything a human being can think, imagine or hope’. Above all else, it is clear that the encounter with Him brings with it a radical change in the human person: the limits created by this are somehow broken down since the Sufi progresses in an unlimited reality, in a sea whose shores he cannot see. How often does the image of ‘being lost in this sea’ occur in Sufi expressions! There are those who speak only of a transforming nearness (qurb) of God (al-Ghazâlî), and those who speak of self-annihilation (fanâ’) in God (al-Junayd), but also those who speak of an indwelling (hulûl) of God in the heart of his servant (al-Hallâj) or of union (wahda-ittihâd) with Him (Ibn ‘Arabî). These expressions have often scandalised the rigid upholders of the exact letter of the law, while for the Sufi, they were only stammerings trying to express a Reality that surpasses all human expression. The distance between interior experience and exterior expression has been lived out profoundly and dramatically by Sufis as ecstasy (ex-stasis), but also as mystical diastasy (dia-stasis). One of the most original of these, al-Niffarî, an Iraqi Sufi who died in the middle of the IV/X century, expressed well this a-synoptic tension between interior experience or vision and exterior expression or letter in his famous saying: “The broader the vision, the narrower the expression”.
A new task for Sufism
Sufism, the spiritual dimension of Islam, is one of the great movements in the spiritual history of humanity, and one of its greatest achievements, great writers, poets and artists matured from within it. Great human values, vast spiritual horizons were realised by the Sufis. The media in our time often show only the violent face of political Islam, ignoring, whether intentionally or not, its spiritual dimension: Sufism.
Surely Sufism is now being given a new task. It is called to liberate Islam from the grip of religious-political ideology, the source of fanaticism and violence. To do this, however, Sufism must also free itself from a long historical compromise with the oppressive structures of Islamic societies. All too often, it, too, has been an ‘instrumentum imperii’, a devastating ally of the political power of Islamic imperialism. This, I believe, is the great challenge facing the spiritual movement of Islam, Sufism. In serious encounter and dialogue with its representatives, it is necessary to create together a journey for action that is truly liberating for every human person and for all human persons, in particular the weakest of them.
Father Joseph Scattolin
Professor of Islamic mystical theology at the Gregorian University (Rome), at the PISAI (Rome) and at Dar Comboni (Cairo).