James Fleming (RELG 373) Mysticism is Essential to Modern Life

In the contemporary age, Sufism and the paradigms of mysticism are just as relevant as they have ever been. One of the areas this is most apparent is in religious plurality. At the foundation of mysticism is the realization that all religious paths strive for and achieve the same goals on the mystical path. However, outside of the mystic path this also permits us to see the convergence of faiths in daily life. Not only is Sufism an effective tool for navigating modern life, but it is also incorrect to presuppose that it must be somehow modified or adjusted in order to be compatible. Sufism has also been a significant force in the political infrastructure of Islamic countries, both in positive and negative aspects.


There is a dire need for acceptance of other faiths in the modern world, and the Qur’an and the Sufi path clearly describe a union between religions. This is especially true for the people of the book, as Q. 2:136, “…We make no division between any of them; unto God do we surrender.”[1] As this passage clearly demonstrates, the pluralistic acceptance that is prevalent in Sufism is directly based in the Qur’an and is not an esoteric extrapolation. There have also been scholars that included figures such as Buddha as part of the lineage of prophecy to predate the Prophet Muhammad.[2] However, the most significant instance in the Qur’an that stresses this point is in aya 30:30, which states that all religions come from the same nameless (or primordial) religion,[3] which is devotion to God alone. Not only is this necessary for relations between other people of the book, but also within the umma itself, with the greatest divide and source of conflict between the Sunni and Shi’a sects. If one takes a mystical approach to examining the relationship between these traditions, it quickly becomes apparent that there is not much difference in what these paths strive for, despite popular belief and conflict perpetuated by both groups. For example, views such as the Hidden Twelfth Imam in Shi’ite tradition are often viewed as innovation on the original message of the prophet, but if examined closely, this is merely a more developed description of Qutb, or the inward pole of the spiritual axis of the world, which is foundational for all mystics and non-mystics alike, whether it is described explicitly as in twelver Shi’ism or not distinctly identified, as in the Sunni tradition.[4]


Not only does this make a means to coexist with other religions, particularly other people of the book, but mysticism also builds the bridges which reconcile these traditions in a more esoteric and core manner, rather than the purely exoteric approach of religious tolerance. This is best seen in Sufi figures such as Shaykh ‘Alawi and many others who venerated Jesus,[5] and in their vein of ascetic practice borrowed from Christian monks, may have taken more example from him than from the Prophet himself. Of course Sufism is deeply rooted in the Qur’an, and many of these figures were seen as on the border, or past the border, of blasphemy, but this also demonstrates how mystic paths are interconnected in a way that has to do with the inherent nature of the practice, rather than an extra effort to make peace with one’s neighbors. The path needs this interconnectedness to exist at all.


Another hurdle that Sufi mysticism faces is that there is a common misconception that many things that arise from Islamic countries are labeled as “Islamic”[6] (such as ‘Islamic Democracy’ or ‘Islamic Socialism’) and are normally incompatible with the Muslim worldview. This is understandable from a Western view, as periods of scientific advancement took place when European society began to distance itself from religion. However, in the case of Islam both revelation and reason are seen as stemming from the same source in the Qur’an, and the Universal Intellect, which communicated to the Prophet through Jibril, became known in the text.[7] This dichotomy of societies leaning one way or the other is part of the double-edged nature of Reason,[8] but this also demonstrates the capacity of mysticism to be a part of modern life and to be a source of guidance through it.


Although not entirely positive, Sufism has played an important role in the government and societal structure of many Islamic countries. There are two aspects of this negativity, one which sees Sufism as “degrading” Islam and a religion of peasants and the lower class, who are conservatively religious and illiterate[9] and the other which sees Sufism as a source of hierarchy and corruption when it is intertwined with the structure of governance. A prime example of this is in the case of Senegal in the 1950s, where the leftist nationalists saw the Sufis as merely an extension of colonial power, and the anti-Sufi salafis viewed it as both anti-nationalistic and corrosive to the religion.[10] Despite the forces against Sufism, and the corruptions within the community, Sufism has been beneficial for societies in which it is prevalent. For example, in the case of political revolution Sufism was important in uniting the people of many countries. At the time of Senegal’s independence from the French in the 1950s, nearly all Muslims belonged to Sufi orders, with the Tijaniyya order as the most prevalent.[11] As earlier mentioned, many saw the orders as having too much influence, but there is also an argument to be made in the fact that these orders can be serviceable to the people without having direct connection to a particular regime.[12] This is due to the nature of Sufism to be split into many orders, which collaborate but do not have a sole source of leadership. Additionally they have multiple veins of leadership within the order itself, even with an official order head.

[1] Eric Geoffroy. “Sufism and Interreligious Openness”. In Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Translated by Roger Gaetani, 182. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 183.

[4] S. H. Nasr (1999). “The Sufi Master as Exemplified in Persian Sufi Literature”. In Sufi Essays, 66. Chicago, IL: KAZI Publications.

[5] Ibid, 184.

[6] S. H. Nasr(1999). “Revelation, Intellect, and Reason in the Quran”. In Sufi Essays, 52. Chicago, IL: KAZI Publications.

[7] Ibid, 54.

[8] Ibid, 55.

[9] Elizabeth Sirriyeh. “Sufis and Anti-Sufis”. In Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defense, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World, 140. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1999.

[10] Ibid, 144.

[11] Ibid, 143.

[12] Ibid, 145.