James Fleming (RELG 373) Foundational Concepts of a Sufi Worldview

As Sufism is not an organized religion with a central authority the idea of finding foundational concepts is a difficult task, to say in the least. For example, figures such as Ibn al-Arabi are revered by many as introducing practice and concepts that many would consider essential to the foundation of a ‘Sufi Worldview’. However, Ibn Arabi’s “oneness of Being” with creation is deemphasized by Sufi Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624).[1] Additionally, historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) completely dismisses figures like Ibn Arabi as practicing “Philosophical Sufism”.[2] Along with a myriad of other examples, it is very clear that there are few concepts, which could be considered foundational to all of ‘Sufism’. Despite the seeming lack of a common base, however, there are several concepts, which may be defining in what is Sufi and what is not.

Due to this lack of consensus on what common Sufi beliefs would entail, the foundational concepts that are shared by the Sufi community, if such a community could be described to exist, pertain the goals rather than any particular beliefs. First of all, hierarchy is extremely important to Sufism, although there is a certain amount of irony in this. This is because having teachers who have experienced the intimacy and “stations” brought about in practice is necessary to achieve this level of spirituality, just as the Prophet Muhammad needed Jibril and the Companions needed the Prophet to acquire this level. Although there is nuance to be expanded upon, the later concepts, which cement the Sufi worldview, are best described as remembrance of God, and the resulting nearness to Him and others.

Although rank and prestige inflate the ego and diminish spiritual realization, the hierarchy system present in Sufism may have actually kept its practices distinguished from other esotericism in the Islamic world, as well as the empires it existed in. Even the Most revered of saints, such as Rabi’a were fearful of anything that may inflate their ego,[3] it may be regarded as a necessary evil that Sufism uses systems of hierarchy. However, these structures have also been spiritually beneficial to Sufi practice. For example, the emergence of initiatory paths was first seen as a decline,[4] it is these same orders that maintained Sufism during spiritually dry periods, especially as time between contemporary Sufis and the Prophet widened. Saints and shaykhs were left with the responsibility to bring vitality that was lost with the passing of the salaf, or those who were Companions to the Prophet or the generation to succeed his companions. Without direct access to the salaf, the practices around the “stations” of the heart preserved the level of reverence once experienced.

As described above there is a great deal of contradiction as to how esoteric practice should be approached across Sufi paths, but every tariqa, or path, shares the same end goals. For example, as the Prophet himself declared, the greater jihad of the heart is of utmost importance.[5] As this Hadith further explicates, the greatest and most important struggle is the incessant attacks of passions on the spirit, rather than the corporeal assail of opposing armies.[6] This of course is the struggle to eliminate the negativity of the ego, and to come as near as possible to have the ego become extinct in God. There is variance in attitude if this extinction means a complete unity in God or an unerring devotion to him, but any view that emerges from this struggle shares the same end goal of being closer to God by being less concerned and overly aware of the self. In other words, the goal of the Greater Jihad is to have greater awareness in God, while eradicating any personal satisfaction that may inflate the ego.

Similarly, even though many rejected Ibn Arabi’s notion of “oneness of Being,” it was still agreed upon that making God central to one’s worldview was essential, even if God is seen through different perspectives. Suyuti (d. 1505) saw dhikr, or divine remembrance and awareness, as the greatest manner of worship.[7] Although Suyuti’s further view that saints were in great enough union with the divine to be omnipresent[8] but his sentiments are echoed across paths. As mentioned earlier Sirhindi was opposed to Ibn Arabi’s view of oneness, but his esotericism was still influenced by Ibn Arabi’s,[9] as the effort to be in remembrance of God and to feel union with him blurs the line of distinction. Whether or not figures such as Ibn Arabi were speaking purely metaphorically about their experiences of the divine, it is visible that the spirit of their premises is echoed throughout Sufi literature and practice, if not the premises themselves.

The all-encompassing concept, however, is nearness. Similar to how the views Ibn Arabi and Suyuti are dismissed by many, so was that of Ibn al-Khatib (d. 1375) when he drew upon Ibn Sab‘in’s “absolute Oneness,” which seemingly eliminates the distance between God and man, it is understandable why there was a great amount of backlash both in the Sufi community and the Islamic world at large, eventually leading to his execution.[10] However, as expressed in Ibn Arabi’s similar concept, there is an overall desire to be nearer to God throughout Sufi practice, although attitudes of how this is accomplished and the attitudes towards these destinations differ. As been discussed in previous lectures, in the Sufi Worldview, God is seen as the “first lover,” the most intimate of beings. Additionally, if one is especially close to God, as is emphasized in the practice of dhikr, then one may feel as if they are in “absolute Oneness,” whether or not this reality is contested by others. In conjunction with this concept, it must then entail that love, more specifically intimate love of personal nearness, is an ultimate goal of Sufi practice.




I have adhered to the Honor Code on this Assignment.                James Fleming_______



[1] Eric Geoffroy. “Sufism in Islamic Culture: Historical Perspective”. In Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Translated by Roger Gaetani, 108. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010.

[2] Ibid, 119.

[3] Margaret Smith. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rábiʻa and Other Women Mystics in Islám. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

[4] Historical Perspective, 99.

[5] Ibid, 132.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] Ibid, 119.

[8] Ibid, 119.

[9] Ibid, 108.

[10] Ibid, 110.