Dorothy Klement: The Four Foundational Principles of Sufism

The variety within Sufi practice and Sufi principles is vast and orders of differing approaches to finding unity with God span across the Middle East, Northern Africa and more recently in the West. Despite the different methods and beliefs within Sufism there are four foundational principles or beliefs that sustain within every order and branch of Sufism. First is the mystical Path for finding nearness with and love of the Divine. Every Sufi yearns to ultimately become one with the Divine through the following of the path and the practice of constant love and devotion to God. Second, within this path Sufis must learn how to unveil reality which is veiled by the ego and self-centeredness that in inherently part of humanity. To unveil reality and the Truth of the Divine, the third foundational principle of rejection of the carnal soul and worldly things is brought to light. Finally, in order to follow this path and climb the mystical ladder to become one with the Divine, knowledge must be transmitted from mentor to mentee vertically. This final principle is what has allowed for the creation of genealogies of mentors descending from the Prophet, who is considered to be the apex of the hierarchy of all mentors; the most perfect human, one with the Divine.

Sufism began when the Muslim Empire was in a period of substantial, fast-paced growth. The beginning Sufis believed that Muslims were becoming too dependent and engrossed in mundane affairs. They exhorted those who had become entangled “in the struggle to acquire worldly means” (Nizami, 22). The first Sufis felt that Muslims were too consumed by their own carnal desires, and started to try and discipline themselves to transcend the carnal soul and get back to the original essence of Islam, following the hadith of the Prophet. They yearned to reach yaqin, or absolute certainty and reality, and move away from ‘iyan (individuals’ perception of reality) which is always self-centered and creates a false sense of reality based on personal and subjective interpretations. Ibn ‘Arabi taught that “everything engendred in existence is imaginary” (Chittick, 61).

This brings us to the principle of unveiling. Within Sufi philosophy, there are many paradoxes regarding the nature and reality of God. ‘Arabi reminds us that “God is unknowable, [and yet] on the other hand, God is knowable; we can understand Him through the Names…the incompatibility of these two standpoints can only be fully grasped at the stage of unveiling… the highest stage of Mystic knowledge is known as “bewilderment” (hayrah)” and only then will the reality be fully unveiled, and us, one with the Divine (Chittick, 58). Nasr describes this concept perfectly when he talks of zhud, describing how “love of the world is the beginning of all sins and renunciation of the world is the beginning of all goods and all acts of obedience” (Sells, 202). In other words, sin is committed when one loves too deeply the world, and not the reality of the Divine. In marriage with the rejection of the carnal soul and the unveiling of the Truth, we can grow closer with God and know Him as we know ourselves. This connects to the principle of oneness and love with and of the Divine.

In order to love and truly know and become with God, Sufis believe that we must reject our ego and, in some cases, completely annihilate the ego. Sufis, by virtue of their name, are then those “who the Beloved has purified” (Mahallati, February 10). This rejection of the self is mirrored in the relationship between masters and slaves. Ernst explains that “in the most extreme formulation, the disciple is expected to be to the Master like a corpse in the hands of the corpse washer, nothing less than total compliance with the master’s will” (Ernst, 19). This idea, both creates a nearness and oneness between master and slave, but also a separation and distance from the slave’s own will and that of the master. The Prophet was cited for choosing to be the servant of the Lord, therefore creating the most intimate relationship he possibly could with God by completely and absolutely submitting to God’s will. Different sufi orders view different practices as helping aid this relationship between man and God. For example, in the very popular Chishti order, practices such as sama’ (listening to music) and zikr (prayerful and meditative recollection of the Names of the Divine) are thought to optimize the proximity, the relationship, dn the “dynamic dialogue between human lover and the Divine Beloved”. Sama’ is considered a practice reserved only for those who have been on the Path for some time because it can “be accepted as a penultimate stage on the mystical ladder leading to ontological unity, ie. perfection” with God (Ernest, 35). The order also believes in recognizing both he closeness and the separation one has with the Divine. The transcendental nature of God is what gives us the separation, and “without separation their could be no love, and yet separation is also to be overcome, for union with God [is] the ultimate goal of every Sufi adept” (Ernest, 34). Unveiling the self by seeking knowledge and true understanding of the self will help us overcome this separation, and lead us to oneness with God. Knowledge is viewed as a source of humility, which brings you closer to love of the Divine, or qurb (Mahallati, February 10). The Qadiriyyah Order believes that “whoever understands himself, also understands God” (Nizami, 17). And so, though Sufis reject the idea of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, it is widely believed that knowledge is essential to becoming humble before God and accepting their role of full submission to His will.

This brings me to the final foundational principle within Sufism, which is vertical transmission of knowledge from mentors to mentees. As I described in reading response 2, the practice of transmitting lessons and guidance down a chain of mentors, which descend all the way back from Muhammad the Prophet, is a key aspect of Sufi tradition. Heck explains that the experiential component of oral transmission and closeness with a mentor, as well as the experience of a community of believers, is what draws humans closer to God. The practice and experience of khidma (service), suhba (companionship), are what help us become more concentrated on the loving of God and the other over the love of ourselves (Heck, 5). The reason why vertical transmission of knowledge is so important is because the Prophet, the first mentor of man, is considered to be the absolute moral and spiritual role model for closeness to God. It is believed that “the lights of the prophecy emerged from his light, and his light appeared from God’s light” (Ernst, 18). As the role model, “the reports [that] were narrated from the Messenger of God, [must] descend from the Messenger, by transmission from one trustworthy person to another, until it reaches us”. The vertical genealogy connects us to the Divine through relationship to the most perfect man.

Taken all together, these principles, though achieved and/or practiced in various ways from order to order, are what make Sufism distinct and allow sufi disciples to focus their life work on becoming close with God. They live in the now and believe that right now is the time of Transparency because God is everywhere. The miracle of life is celebrated, and the Divine worshiped through the experience of life and celebration of this experience, which is, in itself, an absolute reflection of the Divine.


Works Cited

Chittick, William. “Ibn ‘Arabi and His School” ch 3-5.

Ernest, Carl W., Lawrence, B. “Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond”.

New York: Palgrave McMillan. 2002. PDF

Ernst, Carl W., trans. “Teachings of Sufism”. Boston: Sambhala, 1999. PDF.

Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture on the Introduction to Sufism, and Foundations of Esoteric Poetry. Oberlin

                  College, Oberlin OH. February 10, 2016.

Nizami, Khaliq. “Qadirya Order,” Vol. 2. Nasr, ed. Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations. pp. 6-26

Sells, Michael A., ed. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Mi’raj, Poetic and Theological Writings.                   Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1996.