Luke Nikkanen – The Four Fundamentals of Sufism

Luke Nikkanen

RELG 373

Although Sufism is a fluid and ever-changing practice that claims no agreed-upon origin and only a word-of-mouth transmission of information, I believe that it has fundamental tenants that are stressed by various Sufi masters. If I were to focus on four foundational concepts of Sufism, I would focus on the importance of a living lineage back to the prophet, love for and nearness of God, and dichotomies that divide and yet unify the world, and the various planes of existence. Above all else, and as the summation of every other Sufi belief, I believe the single most important tenant is the notion of a cosmic journey being undertaken by all of humanity, and the necessity of human agency to complete this journey.

A constant, living history that is remembered and perpetuated is highly significant in Sufism. Ernest discusses the importance of a reciprocal relationship between humans and divinity, suggesting that this living history is something that brings mankind closer to God. Towards the end of its expansion in the Medieval period, furthermore, Sufism itself became the living source of divinity. It did not seek acceptance amongst orthodox Muslims because it contained in its practices a living link to the Prophet. Furthermore, Sufi reformists felt so linked to the Prophet in the past that some claimed to encounter him in the flesh. This signifies a direct relationship of divinity that is a fundamental component of Sufism. Another means of upholding this tenant of a living past, is the notion of recollection and memory.  This is evident in the widespread practice of recitation of the names of God, zikr, which translates to “recollection”. Further significant is the language of Persian as the means by which Sufi ideas are expressed to the masses. The language itself is fluid and continuous in nature, reflecting an Indo-European lineage which is inescapable when discussing the origins of Sufism.

The notion of continuity as emphasized through Sufi’s living history also manifests in other Sufi practices, specifically, in the near-ness of God. The cosmos is depicted in Sufism as continuously revealing divinity to mankind through various means. This is evident in the Sufi concepts of states, as fleeting, continuous moments that are given to one by God. God, in this sense, is present in every moment that is lived by each individual human. Sufism stresses the removal of the veil of “otherness” and hides the inner light of man, mind must be kept from wandering in the here and now, in the “instant that connects the temporal with the eternal.” This removal of “otherness” and awareness of the moment signifies the presence of the one-ness of God, and the need to be conscious at every instant of divine presence. Furthering this idea is the notion of “union-of-union”, in which one goes beyond witnessing others through God and instead, destroying everything that is not the perception of God. So says a Junayd recantation: “In intimate union, the individual is a party of two.” Of course, one can also go back to the classic Koranic statement, that God is closer to one than one’s own jugular vein. Furthermore, the concept of spiritual ijtihad is significant to touch upon, the idea of the importance of thinking for oneself in regards to Koranic interpretations.

Despite God’s closeness and one-ness, another Sufi paradigm seems to be the embrace of the various dichotomies of reality. The Sufi, by default, inhabits a world that is constantly split between two ideas. The inner self is always at means with the exoteric world of law. In the various stations that man must go through to attain divine union, opposites are also encountered. Sobriety is contrasted with drunken-ness. Nearness is contrasted with far-ness. And yet, it is the very nature of their being opposites that give them meaning. So says Qushayri, “Whoever  has no separation has no worshipfulness. Whoever has no union has no experience of knowing.” Furthermore, the double experience of fana/baqa is essential in Sufism, the notions of not seeing anything outside of God, and seeing God in everything. Junauyd argued that the meaning of the two is gained from their contrast, in that one must die to oneself to come alive again through God. Also, the final states of the three levels of stations are impossible to attain without the second two. It seems to be that the third level, for the most enlightened follower of Sufism, is always the product of the first two components of the various stations. The dichotomies make up the whole of reality.

A forth theme, which is the overarching goal of Sufism, lies in the concept of the spiritual journey. Sufism is built entirely around the attempt of mankind to reach the divine state that they had once occupied, and in this journey lies meanings. Nasr affirms this, in saying that the mystical quest is in the nature of existence, and that one must constantly realize the importance of this path or else society will crumble. These processes of furthering the journey reflect the necessity of human agency. For example, strict rules were given in the Chisti order for disciples to follow to appease their masters, governing their daily behavior with a system of ethics. This journey is something consciously taken on by humanity through various disciplines and also stations. These are attained through a Sufi’s own dedication to the journey, and the advancements through the various stations cannot be completed without fulfilling the previous one. So says Awrangabadi: “The realizers of truth say that the recollection occurs involuntarily, whether one knows it or not…but only the perfect one is aware and comprehends his own recollection.” Again, it is evident that self-awareness and intent is necessary to be able to attain the final goal of Sufism. It is a consciousness of the spiritual journey one embarks on that holds the meaning.