Practical Sufism and Philosophical Sufism

by Seyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha


The history of Sufism is, indeed, an old yet glorious one. This inner path, which originated from the heart of Islam and was established by the people of the platform, Ahle-Suffa, in Medina, Arabia, fifteen centuries ago, has embraced many individuals throughout the world during its most celebrated history. It is because of the inner truth of Sufism, a belief system and discipline free from the confines of time and place, that people from diverse cultural backgrounds and all walks of life, who are, yet, seeking a common pathway to an eternal and transcendent truth, can call themselves Sufis. It is easy to think of Sufism as an abstract doctrine. It is easy to think of Sufism as an open gateway that leads to the garden of truth, as a path of love which requires no endeavor. It is all too easy if we tend to forget that the inner strength of Sufism has been established through and from the personal qualifications, devotion and intellectual ability of those who have defined the quest of truth, that lies at the heart of Sufism.

The history of Sufism records that when the news of Islam spread throughout the middle east and its neighboring nations, many people from many lands were attracted to Arabia. They were coming to hear the teachings of the Prophet. Among these seekers, there were also groups of people, from many lands, nations, cultures and backgrounds, who were united by the inner longing to learn the reality of religion. These individuals found the teachings of the Prophet close to their hearts. Being inspired by His teachings, they became so enraptured by Divine love that they devoted themselves to meditation, purification and servitude and in search for a inner path they developed one of the most celebrated movements in the history of civilization: Tasawouf, Sufism.

It is from these enlightened individuals that Tasawouf came into historical existence. At that time, these enlightened individuals did not call themselves Sufis. The term came into the vocabulary many years later.

Tasawouf has been referred to as a path, a journey, a journey of the heart. Such a journey has a beginning; a point of departure that leads towards a destination. A Sufi takes an inner journey to attain the knowledge of Self, a knowledge that leads towards the understanding the Divine. A journey towards understanding such truth will necessarily involve steps, one has to pass through stations of learning, awareness and understanding. One must learn the rules, disciplines and practices. One does not become a Sufi without honoring the rules of the Path. Being attracted to the teachings of Sufism does not necessarily make one a Sufi.

In Sufism, the traveler departs from the station of limited knowledge and understanding and takes the journey towards the destination of greater understanding, understanding the Divine. The foundation of such a journey is based on the individual's recognition of his/her own limited knowledge and a desire to expand such knowledge and ultimately surpass its limitation. In passing the successive stages of the journey, the traveler will learn the meaning of Divinity, will become aware and knowledgeable of the teachings of truth, will pass the levels of purification to discover the meaning of unity which lies hidden behind the veils of multiplicity. And s/he will finally arrive at the stages of heart, all knowledgeable, tranquil and aware to witness Divine illumination.

In the journey of the heart the Sufi, the traveler, becomes enraptured by the magnificent existence of the Divine, the Divine becomes the eternal Beloved and the journey becomes the journey of the lovers towards the Beloved where finally the Sufi declares:

God is Love, Prophet is Love, Religion is Love
From the smallest grain of sand to the highest heavens
All are enraptured by love.

Throughout the world of Sufism, love has become the eternal theme. Sufis have gracefully glorified this theme in their poetry, in their principles, in their songs and practices, to the point that the Sufi proclaims:

Let love exist
No fear if I exist or not
Let this iron change into gold
Rising from this fire of love.

(Moulana Shah Maghsoud, 20th Century Persian Sufi)

We must understand that it is a human right to be able to find the way towards understanding the reality of the Divine, an understanding which is direct without the need for a medium. One needs to dissolve into the being of the Beloved, the Divine, where there remains no need to refer to You (referring to the Divine) and I (referring to oneself). In such a state the veils of multiplicity will fall and essential unity will remain. The seeker will become the true manifestation of la illaha illa Allah, there is nothing except one Divine Unity. It is in this state that the seeker becomes a truthful monotheist.

I wonder at this You and I
You are all there is
And I am all annihilated.
There is an I
No longer exists.
Mansur al-Halaj (10th Century Persian Sufi)

We searched a while for the Divine
Within the depth of our illusions
Looking there to find His signs
In the Beings of "you" and "I".
When love appeared
" You" and "I" were dissolved,
And found no more need to follow signs.

(Moulana Shah Maghsoud, 20th Century Persian Sufi)

In the life story of the Prophet, whose title was Habib-u-Allah, the beloved of Allah, we read of his immeasurable love for Allah. We learn that his love for the Divine was powerful and so complex that it was/is not easy to separate this lover from his Beloved Allah. His state of Unification is beyond words. Such tradition, annihilation in the Divine has remained strong in Sufism, certainly it was strong among the People of Suffa.

After the passing of the Prophet those founders of Sufism went back to their own homelands. They began teaching what they had learned. Students gathered around them and centers were created. Among the most organized and established centers were: Khorasan (northeastern Iran); Fars (central Iran); and Baghdad (Iraq). The students of these teachers, in turn, traveled to many lands and with them the teaching and message of Sufism was introduced to the hearts of many nations and many people.

Over the centuries, gradually two systems of Sufism developed: practical Sufism and philosophical Sufism.

Sufism is established on the essential laws of Being, and the laws of Being are timeless, free from dimensions of time and place and the limitations of human qualities. Individuals do have the ability to understand the laws of Being, yet they cannot change the laws. The same principle applies in Sufism. As a result, the essential principles of Sufism have remained free from the dimensions of time or place, gender or race, cultures or ceremonies and all human qualities.

When a traveler of the journey of the heart, a Sufi, passes the stages of Being and arrives at the ocean of infinity, when s/he passes from the world of multiplicity to discover essential unity, when the walls of nature fall, and the manifestation of the Divine reflects into the heart of the seeker where s/he discovers the bounty of the existence after complete annihilation, capable of witnessing Divine illumination, s/he has entered the realm of Practical Sufism. Such essential law does not change as cultures or times change.

When Practical Sufism has entered different cultures and times, sometimes its surface might have taken the colors of cultures and times, but its essence has remained secure and unchanged in the chests of its owners. This spiritual journey is not a matter of chance, of following intuition, or trusting empty verbal formula. Rather, it is an expedition carried out in accordance with definite rules.
Practical Sufism did not deviate and change from its original mission.

Parallel to this school, another line of Sufism has developed since the 12th-13th century. When a few Sufi teachers began to explain the laws and mysteries of creation and governing principles of Sufism within the confines of the philosophical language, so people could better understand, they created, knowingly or not, Philosophical Sufism; a descriptive Sufism based more on explanations, philosophy and history.

The expansion and development of Philosophical Sufism was faster, since it was easier to understand.

This belief system, founded on the principles of Islam, gradually became an interesting discovery for a few western researchers. These researchers, or Orientalists, focusing on this middle eastern mysticism, have translated or written commentaries on the works of Sufis, yet not all those researchers were familiar with those cultures, Sufism and the dominating languages including the language of Sufism itself. Many of these researchers have taken Philosophical Sufism as Practical Sufism and introduced it to their readers.

Practical Sufism is based on practice while philosophical Sufism focuses on the verbal explanation of the practice, history or principles of Sufism. Such explanation, even though useful, yet without doubt, can always be conditional. It is conditioned upon the level of the writer's understanding of Sufism and on his or her level of prejudice, personal qualifications, likes and dislikes. Philosophical Sufism can also be bound to the limitation of language and words used to describe a practice. We all know how the meaning behind the words varies from one culture to another.

Even though these two systems of Sufism are different from each other, it is not always easy for an observer to distinguish between the two, especially since sometimes ceremonies and traditions may become more interesting, therefore easily replacing the quest for the truth which lies in the heart of Sufism.
It is necessary for us to remember that the verbal explanation of an experience is different from the experience itself. The word "water" or its description does not quench thirst, its drinking does. Imagining the Divine will not lead to understanding the Divine, inner discovery will. Ceremonies will not open the door towards Unity; Divine unity is attained through passing from the limited self and dissolving in Divinity, without any medium, and becoming the messenger of la illaha illa Allah, there is nothing except Divine Unity. One cannot confess such truth without being that truth and the truth does not change with the changing of cultures and times.